Surviving Chemicals and Making Sense of Them: Tips for Journalists

Despite the recent International Year of Chemistry (2011), chemicals don’t get good press in Sri Lanka. If at all they make it to the news, or become a current affairs topic, that is usually as a bad story: a chemical spill, water contamination or suspected pesticide residues in our food.

All these happen, and we should be concerned. But chemicals are everywhere in our modern lives — reducing drudgery, protecting us from disease and overall improving the quality of life. It’s all a question of balancing risks with benefits. Also discerning what we really need as opposed to what we want.

Focusing on bad news is the media’s typical approach, and demonising science and technology is common in many sections of our print and broadcast media. Such posturing also fits well into the prevailing narrative of the ‘whole world being out to undermine, destabilise and destroy us’. So chemical industries must be part of that ‘conspiracy’, no?

Many of Lanka’s environmental activists don’t allow facts and analysis to get in the way of a good scare story. Uncritical journalists and their editors often peddle their half-baked arguments and conspiracy theories unsupported by any evidence. Very few scientists speak out for science and reason.

So when the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ), a moderate advocacy group, invited me to talk to a group of journalists and broadcasters at a media workshop, I welcomed the opportunity.

I based my talk on five scientists each of who took on once-revered chemicals and formidable industry interests, all in the public interest. By showcasing these champions of public science, I wanted to show that there are honest, diligent scientists who engage in evidence-based advocacy. Not all scientists are part of some global conspiracy to poison us…

The five are those who worked tirelessly and left their mark in their discipline, and in how we look at chemical and environmental management:
Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964)
Alice Hamilton (1869 – 1970)
Sherwood Rowland (1927 – 2012)
Theo Colborn (1927 – )
Anil Agarwal (1947 – 2002)

I ended by urging journalists to look for credible and moderate scientists who are led by evidence, not conjecture or prejudice. Amplifying their voices is something we in the media are well positioned to do, but don’t do nearly enough.

Presentation to Media workshop on scientific reporting on chemical issues, organised by Centre for Environmental Justice in Colombo, 25 September 2012:

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