Toxic Fear & its Geography

Another short. One of the challenges of engaging with toxic fear in the 1980s was to recognize that discrete events provoked specific fears. Inasmuch as the media played a role (it did, but it was not the sole driver of public anxieties towards chemicals), I found I needed to understand how and where stories received attention. Many incidents—from Love Canal to later, less-publicized events—received national attention, albeit briefly. Invariably, however, the local press told more stories and kept the discussion going for longer. And none of this explains variations in how environmental stories were told. More often than not, the media could have mitigated fears with clear and accessible scientific information. More often than not, however, it tended to pander to captivating readers through sound bytes that fuelled the fire. In national stories, however, sites of toxic fear still had distinct geographies. An example: the national apple scare surrounding the use of Alar, or daminozide, in the late 1980s. It received considerable mainstream news attention, after the Natural Resources Defense Council, CBS’s 60 Minutes, and the actress Meryl Streep brought the issue to the public.

 Media analysis also permits some opportunity to evaluate the geography of toxic fear. For example, a 1996 study on media reporting on Alar found that west coast newspapers—The Los Angeles Times, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and The San Jose Mercury News—reported more frequently than comparable newspapers on the eastern seaboard.[1] Careful analysis of the reporting, however, revealed that many of the articles recounted the controversy without recording the competing scientific interpretations of the inherent risks. Many newspapers were captivated by the storm and rhetoric and debate, leaving readers with no better framework for understanding the potential hazards (or lack thereof) posed by eating apples.[2] Which is to say that an information deficit regarding Alar’s risks persisted. Media outlets capitalized on the controversy and sold newspapers and captured viewers by aggravating Americans’ latent fear of chemicals.


[1] Table on page 10 of Friedman et al., “Alar and Apples: Newspapers, Risk and Media Responsibility,” Public Understanding of Science 5 (1996), 1-20.
[2] Jane Gregory & Steve Miller, Science in Public: Communication, Culture, and Credibility (New York: Basic Books, 1998), 168-173.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s