In Depth

Recovering from Crisis Mentality

Environmental News Requires Long-Term Perspective as Well

Like so much other news coverage, the intersection of environmental and health/medical journalism often takes place at a crisis point, such as an oil spill or a leak of radiation from a nuclear plant, or in relation to a high-profile event.

Recent environmental-health news headlines have focused on air pollution in Beijing, and how it might impact athletes from all over the world coming to China to compete in the 2008 Summer Olympics. A recent front-page story discussed how fears about the pollution are prompting some athletes to skip some of the Olympics to minimize their exposure while some are considering wearing masks to mitigate it—images that would be a PR nightmare for the Chinese, who are taking extreme measures to clean up their air.

What’s left for a slow news day or the back pages of newspapers and magazines are stories that affect the health of huge numbers of Americans on a daily basis.

“From my point of view, attention to global warming and potential problems in the future have gotten more media attention than problems we have today,” said Dr. Hal Strelnick, director of the Institute for Community and Collaborative Health at New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Dr. Strelnick cited the correlation between air pollution and asthma—and heart disease. “There’s been an asthma epidemic since the early 1980s, even as we have cleaned up the air in general, but because of changes in technology of diesel engines, cars and trucks, we have contributed a great deal on a micro level,” said Dr. Strelnick. “In neighborhoods along highways where kids play outdoors, there is much more asthma. There is also evidence that connects air pollution with heart attacks and increased mortality across the country. This is a problem where people’s health is being affected today, problems here and now that do not get the attention they should.”

For environmental reporter Charles Clifford of San Francisco station KRON-TV, looking for a human health angle is part of nearly every worthwhile story on the environment.

“The port of Oakland has thousands of trucks that pass through, and big cargo ships, and the pollution from both sources blows into West Oakland, which has some of the highest child asthma rates in the state of California,” Mr. Clifford said. “We try to get the human angle while we also do the story of the nuts and bolts of ships using cleaner shore power at the harbor.”

Although environmental and health stories are often linked, Mr. Clifford said the health angle can get short shrift because, for financial reasons, his station does not have a health reporter. “A lot of stories fall into either category,” he said. “Sometimes there is a fine line between health and the environment.”

Another ongoing health issue is the presence of lead in the environment, even though it has been banned in paint and gasoline. ”The more we’ve learned leads to the conclusion that even minute amounts in a child’s body are dangerous, that no level is safe,” Dr. Strelnick said. “We may be doing damage to our children still, and it remains a major problem. … A little can lead to learning disabilities, juvenile delinquency, and even to dementia in the elderly.”

What has received much coverage is the recall of toys made in China that contain lead and pose a danger to children, but Dr. Strelnick said there is socioeconomic bias to what gets reported. “There is a lot more attention paid to things that threaten the middle and upper classes than the poor,” he said. “That’s part of the challenge in the way in which we think about what is news. These are old problems that haven’t gone away. We’ll pay attention to a crisis, but a chronic problem takes a long time and sustained effort. As a culture, we have trouble staying with things. We want to go on to the next thing.”

Many medical professionals are critical of the way the “war on cancer” has been positioned, saying it looks more at treating rather than finding ways to prevent the disease—including the examination of sources of toxicity in the environment. “It’s not just journalists that get tired, but sometimes medical research funding agencies like the [National Institutes of Health] don’t want to hear about asthma and lead. They want to be on the cutting edge of science. My goal is to eradicate these problems,” Dr. Strelnick said.

The concern about mercury and other chemical contamination in fish and the health dangers it poses is another topic that Dr. Strelnick said merits more media attention. “There is a pretty direct effect on people’s health,” he said. “As the fish go up the food chain, they have higher concentrations of these contaminants, like mercury and PCBs. Some of that is from the consequence of air pollution getting absorbed into the ocean, some from dumping of garbage and spills that occur, accidentally and on purpose.”

News coverage of these and other health issues has created more awareness, and sometimes outrage, which spearheads positive change. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, medical waste washed up on East Coast beaches, fomenting public outcry that led to new regulations on its disposal. The result was increased safety for the public and medical workers.

“If the media hadn’t covered certain stories, it might be business as usual and the public might never know,” said Mr. Clifford. “The job of the media is to look for these stories and tell what’s going on. Then hopefully the public is outraged and the problems get fixed.”