Science and the Media

Chapter 9: Responsible Reporting in a Technological Democracy

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Donald Kennedy and Geneva Overholser
The Media in Society

William A. Wulf

The United States and the other developed countries are the most technologically sophisticated societies that have ever existed. They are also the most technologically dependent societies that have ever existed.

Inevitably, a large number of important public policy issues have a technological dimension. Issues like climate change, energy policy, and even the use of computer-based voting systems cannot be meaningfully discussed without some understanding of the technology involved. Alas, the vast majority of our citizens lack that understanding. One has to wonder just what it means for a society to be a “democracy” when its citizens are unable to participate in a substantive discussion of some of the most important public policy issues facing them.

What follows are a half-dozen examples of poor and perhaps even dangerous media coverage of important issues. In each case, the problem was a failure to account for the technical dimension of the story. This paper is not intended as a condemnation of the media, however. The premise of this paper is (a) that the journalistic community and the technical community share a responsibility to inform the public, and both were AWOL in these cases; (b) that complete and accurate coverage does not require deep technical knowledge that is “over the heads” of the general public; and (c) that mainstream journalism is the most effective and most timely place to provide the information that the public needs to be responsible citizens.


The impression one got from the media’s coverage of Iran’s uranium enrichment program is that uranium “enrichment” is equivalent to having a nuclear weapons program. The fact that the Iranians have three thousand centrifuges (generally intoned in a grave voice) was evidence for the seriousness of the problem.

Not once in the coverage of this issue did I see or hear an explanation of enrichment or of reasons why Iran might be doing it, other than for making bombs. Yet the reason is so simple to explain, and an explanation would add so much to informing the public’s opinions.

Uranium occurs in two varieties, called U-235 and U-238. U-235 is the kind that heats up water in a nuclear reactor or goes boom in a bomb. About the only thing interesting about U-238 is that it’s really heavy; it is not radioactive, and its presence actually impedes the function of both reactors and bombs. Naturally occurring uranium ore contains less than 1 percent of the “good stuff,” U-235, and most of the rest is U-238. The concentration of U-235 has to be increased to 3 to 5 percent to work in a nuclear reactor and 90 to 95 percent to make a bomb. The process of increasing the percentage of U-235 is called “enrichment.”

The critical question was never whether Iran was enriching uranium, but whether it was enriching uranium to 5 percent or to 90 percent. Even after the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate stating that Iran suspended its weapons program in 2003 was released, the media did not ask the question, and the technical community did not offer an explanation. That left the public, and perhaps our political leadership, assuming the worst.

But what about the number of centrifuges that Iran has? Iran’s three thousand centrifuges are older and vastly less efficient than the model the United States uses—about one-one hundreth as efficient, in fact. Experts consider that about fifty thousand of the newer models are needed for a production enrichment facility. Is this something we should have seriously considered going to war about?


In Fall 2001, two waves of anthrax attacks occurred. At the time of these attacks, the National Academies were doing a study of terrorism prompted by the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. One of the members of the study committee was Jim Woolsey, a former director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Jim kept reminding the committee that “the purpose of a terrorist is to terrorize,” and the media coverage of the attacks was surely the terrorists’ best ally in accomplishing that aim. Media coverage heightened anxiety without really informing the public. In reality, only five people died from what was purported to be high-quality anthrax spores. More people than that died from lightning strikes1 during the months of intense, frightening, drumbeat coverage. And again, the technical community was largely silent.

Perhaps the real story ought to have been just how hard it is to make and deliver anthrax that will make people sick. That story was never told. Instead the public was made to feel a real and imminent danger. The terrorist(s) probably applauded after each news story.


A more recent example of drumbeat coverage of a scary medical situation was that of H5N1 avian flu. The typical coverage emphasized that, of the something like three hundred reported cases in human beings in the last five years, there were about two hundred deaths, or a greater than 60 percent mortality rate. That compares to the less than one-tenth of 1 percent mortality rate for common seasonal flu—a difference of a factor of six hundred. The concern was expressed again and again that if the virus mutated to be transmissible to (and between) human beings, it would result in a far, far worse pandemic than the 1918 “Spanish” flu that may have killed more than fifty million people worldwide. And, as we were correctly warned, viruses do rapidly mutate.

I am not a biologist, but even I know that the mechanisms of infection in birds and human beings are very different—occurring in the gut of the bird as opposed to the lungs of human beings, and with very different kinds of receptor sites in the two cases. This probably explains why human cases have been rare and may suggest that while viruses do evolve rapidly, this particular kind of mutation is a big leap and hence unlikely. How unlikely? I do not know, but it certainly is far less likely than most citizens were led to believe.

I also know that although the mortality rate for seasonal flu is small, it infects twenty to sixty million people annually, resulting in thirty thousand to forty thousand deaths. Comparing risks is something that human beings do poorly—and this is a good case of why. How do we compare the two situations: (1) two hundred deaths in five years, with an unlikely but possible mutation resulting in a horrendous pandemic; (2) thirty thousand to forty thousand deaths annually from something that is just a nuisance to most of us? The avian flu coverage was a missed “teachable moment,” a chance when the media and technical community might have stepped in to help the public think substantively about risk.

By the way, if avian flu was a risk previously worthy of daily coverage month after month, why is it not still being covered? Avian flu has not gone away.


The Three Mile Island reactor incident stopped the production of new nuclear power plants in the United States. I suspect that if you asked a cross-section of Americans, they would tell you that the incident was horrendous and endangered thousands, even millions of lives. The public clearly is still highly skeptical about the advisability of building new nuclear plants.

Who knows what would have happened if Three Mile Island had not occurred, but I believe more of our current power supply would be from nuclear energy—hence, less from fossil fuels, meaning we would be putting less carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. Because climate change is, in my view, the most serious problem facing humankind, possibly even making Earth uninhabitable by human beings, the consequences of the collective public decision to stop producing nuclear plants are significant.

But how much does the public—or our political leaders, for that matter —know about the safety of nuclear power? How much do they know about just how serious the Three Mile Island incident really was? Very little! And, again, neither the press nor the technical community made a serious attempt to educate Americans so that they could make an informed decision.

In reality, Three Mile Island could have been a very serious incident, but it was not—at least in part because of the safety measures built into every U.S. reactor. About two million people were exposed to an average of 1 to 2 millirems of radiation. However, in that part of Pennsylvania everyone is exposed to 100 to 150 millirems each year from naturally occurring radiation in the soil.


Often the media make things out to be worse than perhaps they actually are. The opposite can also occur, however: reality can be less rosy than it is portrayed to be.

The recent documentary film Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006) depicts a situation that played out in the early 1990s in California. Faced with a serious air pollution problem, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) mandated that an increasing percentage of the cars in the state had to be “zero emission” —that is, electric. General Motors (GM) built an electric car for this market, the EV-1, and for some reason only leased them to customers. The EV-1 had some drawbacks: it was a two-seater, had a limited range, and took twelve to fifteen hours to recharge. But it also was kind of sporty, quiet, and definitely “zero emission.” My friends who had one really liked it.

However, after just a few years CARB rescinded its ruling requiring zero-emission cars. GM recalled the EV-1s and shredded them. The premise of Who Killed the Electric Car? is that behind GM’s actions must be a conspiracy— maybe it was the oil companies, maybe it was the auto manufacturers, maybe it was somebody else—but it had to be a conspiracy! Who killed the electric car?

Unfortunately, no one asked which is better for the environment, the electric car or a gasoline one. If we focus only on the car, the answer is the electric one. But that is not the whole story. Both the electricity and the gasoline have to be made, so the right comparison is between the whole system that includes the cars, their manufacture, the production of their fuel, the disposal of the cars at the end of their life, and so on. The cars themselves are just one part of this system.

Given the present mix of sources for generating electricity, the system of which the electric car is a part puts about three-and-a-half times more CO2 into the atmosphere than the system of which the gasoline car is a part. Using a mix of sources involving more renewables and nuclear, the answer would be quite different; but currently, the system of which electric vehicles—from the EV-1 to current “plug-in” hybrids—are a part puts about three-and-a-half times more CO2 into the atmosphere than does the system of which the gasoline car is a part.

Again, both the press and the technical community missed a teachable moment—an opportunity to create informed, responsible citizens. Just making the point that one must look at the whole system, not just the car, would have been enormously helpful. Had we been feeling ambitious, we might also have pointed out that every conversion of energy from one form to another is done imperfectly. In the case of the electric car, a long chain of such conversions occurs. The chain is so long, in fact, that only about 7 percent of the energy in the fuels used to generate electricity is ultimately used to power the car.

I don’t know who killed the electric car—but bless ’em!


The argument for a hydrogen economy is that when hydrogen burns it combines with oxygen to form water. That is, the only emission of a hydrogen engine is pure water.

Again, this explanation ignores the larger system—in particular, how the hydrogen is produced. The principal method for making commercial quantities of hydrogen is a process called steam reforming of natural gas. A fossil fuel goes in, and guess what comes out? Sure, hydrogen, but also CO2!

Admittedly, per unit of energy delivered, less CO2 comes out of natural gas than out of coal. But the notion that the “only” emission from a hydrogen engine is pure water ignores a significant part of the story.


To be a responsible citizen in a society as technological as ours, everyone needs some knowledge of science and technology. Some really bad public policy can come from a lack of that knowledge. The technical and journalistic communities share a responsibility to provide it, and the best way to do so is by taking advantage of the teachable moments that naturally arise. However, this needs to be done everywhere in journalism, not just in the New York Times Tuesday Science section, or National Public Radio’s Science Friday.

Citizens do not need to be scientists or engineers. For most topics, what they need to know is pretty simple—for example, the notion that one needs to look at the whole system, not just the car. Journalists do not need to be scientists or engineers either, but even more than the average citizen, they need to know what kinds of questions to ask—things like the overall efficiency of the system in which the electric car is embedded. Lacking this kind of knowledge, the journalist with even the best of intentions can mislead the public into making some very bad public policy choices.

By the same token, not all scientists and engineers need to be great communicators—but we need to make space for a few, respect them for what they do, and give them a platform for reaching the public. Too often the technical community has done the opposite of this—as in the case of Carl Sagan, who was denied membership in the National Academy of Sciences for his efforts to make astronomy accessible to the general public.

The usual excuse for not including more science and engineering content in mainstream journalism is that either it is “too hard” or “just not interesting.” I reject both excuses. At the level relevant to public policy, the content is not hard, and it can be made interesting. Even if I am wrong about that, the proportion of important public policy issues with a technological component is rapidly increasing. If we want to continue to have a democracy, citizens are going to have to understand some of this stuff!


1. An average of slightly more than seven people per month died from lightning strikes between 1980 and 1995.