Emergency Preparedness and Response

How to Successfully Manage the Media After an Environmental Crisis


Understanding the Media

The media are interested in the news, not risk. The principal job of the media is to obtain the facts: what happened, how it happened, who’s to blame, and what the authorities are doing about the incident. Therefore risk, in and of itself, is not a big news story—unless the story concerns a spill and the threat that the spill poses to the community. Chemical risk will also make the news if the issue becomes politicized.

Media focus on the politics of risk rather than the science of risk. A reporter covering a Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) meeting on the development of the local community emergency plan is not likely to summarize the scientific data presented at the meeting. The story may, however, detail the squabbles and arguments between committee representatives discussing the relative hazards of the chemical in question. Political information and issues reporting is more easily covered than scientific or technical data.

Although it is unlikely that the media will cover abstract concepts such as zero risk, or the problems with relating animal studies to human exposures, you should make an effort to familiarize the media with these concepts. Eventually, the more difficult issues may make it into the newspaper in a longer piece or in an editorial.

One reason that the media will rarely give equitable coverage to the various technical, scientific, and regulatory details surrounding risk discussions is that the media views objectivity differently than scientists, chemists, or technical people.

Objectivity for the media is a balance of opinions and viewpoints. It is not necessarily balanced coverage of the facts as might be expressed in a scientific journal.


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Chemical Risk Simplification

Most of us recognize the next fact: A risk story is simplified to a dichotomy. Is it hazardous or isn’t it? Does it cause cancer or doesn’t it? Should we drink the water or not? The media dichotomizes risk because the public wants to know: Yes or No?

How do you handle these types of questions during an interview, at a LEPC meeting, at the garden club? First, don’t resent the media or citizen or planning committee member’s question. Expect the audience to cling to their safe or dangerous dichotomy. Most likely, they see the issue this way and they expect you to see it in the same light. Second, simplify your answer, breaking the complex “shades” or abstract principles into tiny bits of understandable information. Third, make your case–even if it is not what they want to hear. Use analogies freely to demonstrate relative risk. Discuss why certain studies are inconclusive. The difference between fighting and educating may be defined by your demeanor; be persuasive and self-assured without being condescending.

The other type of question to expect from the media, and the public, is the personalized question that puts you in the unenviable position of answering for yourself. Would you drink the water? Would you send your child back to the school adjacent to the vulnerability zone? The best answers are honest answers. Answer the question simply and calmly. Once again, explain yourself if your answer is more complex than the Yes or No question allows. Tactfully explain any discrepancy between your personal opinion and company policy.


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Disclosures are Alarming

It’s another typical meeting at the LEPC. The facility emergency coordinator is discussing the relative risk of aniline, an extremely hazardous substance that is used in large quantities at the plant. The discussion is heated, but comments are intelligent and constructive. The next day the newspaper headline reads: “Chemical Risk Casts Ominous Shadow Over Community.”

Oh no!

This headline may be irresponsible, but it is not unexpected. Claims of risk are more newsworthy because they are more alarming than claims of safety. You have four extremely hazardous substances that are addressed at the LEPC meeting.

Three are stored in relatively small amounts and appear to pose no substantial risk to the community. One chemical is used in large amounts and the local emergency plan needs to address a potential release of the chemical. The story, of course, covers that one chemical. Similarly, when chemical release data is publicly available, newspapers will be ripe with stories of citizens claiming excessive risks and potential health problems as a result of industrial releases.

This raises another important point. The public’s perception of risk is exacerbated whenever new information (e.g., chemicals in the community) is disclosed.