The problem with errors in the news media is not necessarily their omnipresence; it’s more the susceptibility of the journalistic process – absent third party and other review, especially in the age of downsized newsrooms seeking 24-7 scoops – to mistakes.
A common thread: An advocacy group releases a report critical of something, issues press statements and the news media glom onto it seeking, hopefully, a counter perspective. It’s a dodgy yet common journalistic practice – he said, she said journalism – in which an extreme can be pitted against a valid perspective as if the two are on equal footing.
That was the case in 2009 when the Environmental Working Group, an environmental activist group with a media friendly name that claimed Reno’s water quality was among the worst in the country. There’s more to the story below, but sadly for Reno and other communities falsely tarnished by misapplied data analysis, or simply false data, the story continues to surface every six months or so.
Even though the original reporting was debunked locally and by other water purveyors across the country, the storyline is too attractive for even the more experienced reporters to ignore.
DailyFinance fell victim to EWG’s nonsense when it too recycled the story in 2011. Just as did Jon Ralston, who has “covered Nevada politics for more than a quarter century,” and who retweeted a headline rehashing the story, provoking rapid responses by TMWA and yours truly after Reno was sarcastically referred to by Ralston as “pathological” in its defense of our community’s water. Perhaps. And no more so than if Ralston’s journalistic acumen was called into question every six months for years on end for the same thing.
— Jon Ralston (@RalstonReports) February 12, 2014
DailyFinance updated today its article – which was a rehash of an article by none other than the click-bait journos at 24/7 Wall St. –to reflect that the data interpretations are suspect.
DailyFinance is even questioning whether the entire 2009 EWG report is bad science. The answer: Of course it is. Read below to see why.
The New York Times and the Environmental Working Group
(Originally written in 2011; excerpted from Spin: How the News Media Misinform and Why Consumers Misunderstand.)
In late 2009, an email was sent nationwide. In it, a New York Times reporter (NOTE: also now a best-selling author), Charles Duhigg, asked representatives of state environmental protection agencies to submit “any and all” data pertaining to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act for the years 1998 to the present. The data request would, for Nevada, amount to 1.5 to 2 million data points. The asked-for deadline was November 30, eight days after Duhigg’s email request. The state told Duhigg his request was so cumbersome, it would not be able to gather the millions of data points within his eight-day deadline.
What was not indicated in Duhigg’s email was that the reporter was already working with data from both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Environmental Working Group, an environmental advocacy organization that drives public policy by stirring up environmental concerns through the news media. EWG regularly sends press releases to news media nationwide expressing concern about myriad environmental issues and issues potentially affecting human health. EWG has targeted governments and private industry alike for presumed consumer health concerns.
Even though the state had not been able to meet Duhigg’s deadline for submitting the data requested, he published faulty data anyway. He later went on NPR and claimed he received data from all states.
The same day Duhigg’s drinking-water-quality story was released and published in the New York Times, EWG sent a solicitation email requesting donations from its supporters. It was signed and promoted by musician Bonnie Raitt and activist Erin Brockovich, who both apparently had the time to read the lengthy New York Times story, examine its data and sidebars and also craft and deliver a colorfully designed message a few hours after the Times story was published and after EWG had released its own representation of water quality data from around the country.
In their email, Raitt and Brockovich said that the EWG’s release of information was with the New York Times.
“I’m blown away by everything EWG does. Just this past week, they released, with The New York Times, the latest update to their National Drinking Water Database. You can use the database to look up the chemical pollutants in your tap water and learn what you can do to protect your family against them. Who would do all this research if EWG wasn’t around?” [Emphasis in original text.]
Actual researchers, is who. Although the EWG claims it conducts research, it turns out what EWG does is not subject to the benefits of peer-review and apparently, to its critics, has little basis in reality.
UC Davis researchers did an analysis of EWG’s claims about food safety. The May 15, 2011, issue of the Journal of Toxicology published their results. Here is some of what they wrote:
“Since 1995, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a United States-based environmental advocacy organization, has developed an annual list of fruits and vegetables, frequently referred to as the ‘Dirty Dozen’ suspected of having the greatest potential for contamination with residues of pesticides…. The annual release of the report has traditionally generated newspaper, magazine, radio, and television coverage, and the report is considered to be quite influential in the produce purchasing decisions of millions of Americans.”
The Davis researchers, Carl Winter and Josh Katz, took the EWG report about fruits and vegetables and researched the group’s claims. Here’s what they found:
“The methodology used to create the ‘Dirty Dozen’ list does not appear to follow any established scientific procedures. Only one of the six indicators used by EWG crudely considers the amount of pesticide residue detected on the various commodities, and that indicator fails to relate exposures to such residues with established health criteria.”
The scientists concluded: “In summary, findings conclusively demonstrate that consumer exposures to the ten most frequently detected pesticides on EWG’s ‘Dirty Dozen’ commodity list are at negligible levels and that the EWG methodology is insufficient to allow any meaningful rankings among commodities….”
EWG’s claims about food and pesticides are bogus in other words. Despite scientific review of EWG’s work, the group has a vibrant history of inflammatory public relations tactics that are frequently well received in the popular press. (It should be noted that the group’s executive editor, Nils Bruzelius, is a member of the National Association of Science Writers, which maintains as its constitution a principle to “foster the dissemination of accurate information regarding science and technology in keeping with the highest standards of journalism.” I am also a member of NASW.)
The water quality story had dubious claims similar to those of EWG’s annual “Dirty Dozen” list. What set apart EWG’s water quality story was that the New York Times used the Environmental Working Group’s data for its story, despite warnings from others, such as the American Council on Science and Health, about EWG’s repeated scare tactics and often misleading claims.
The New York Times’ water quality reports said that EPA regulations are not enough to protect average consumers from what EWG called a “cocktail of contamination” and what the Times called “toxic waters.” To reach these conclusions, however, both EWG and the Times used faulty, incomplete data and misconstrued water quality reports from the water purveyors in many American cities.
The Times, using EWG’s data for only two years, claimed that Northern Nevada’s Truckee Meadows Water Authority had exceeded legal limits of both arsenic and tetrachloroethylene. Yet, records clearly show TMWA had never exceeded legal limits nor has it had health-based violations, “especially for arsenic,” according to TMWA’s Paul Miller.
Miller said that the New York Times data are incorrect. He explained that he spoke directly with the Times reporter, Duhigg, about the arsenic numbers.
Prior to 2006, TMWA’s system-wide average was just over 3 ppb (parts per billion) when the arsenic regulations were at a limit of 50 ppb. The regulations were later changed to the current standard of 10 ppb. Miller said the system-wide average was most recently just under 3 ppb, but the New York Times reported that TMWA’s “average result” was 7.09 ppb, while the EWG claimed it was 7.06 ppb.
The Times also only showed data from 2004 and 2005, when the limit was 50 ppb, even though the legal limit listed by the Times was the current limit of 10 ppb.
It was journalistic sleight-of-hand. The Times showed one figure, which was incorrect, but placed it under current limits, not the limits that existed during the time period being reported. Simply, both the EWG and the Times were wrong.
More surprisingly, Duhigg had been directly told the data were wrong prior to his story being published, and TMWA has, since the news stories appeared, repeatedly tried to get the EWG to correct its data. TMWA letters to EWG go unanswered, and its concerns remain unaddressed by EWG at the time of this writing.
Despite information provided by TMWA to the Times, it did not stop the Times from making the claim that “communities where the drinking water has contained chemicals that are associated with health risks include Scottsdale, Ariz.; El Paso, Tex., and Reno, Nev. Test results analyzed by the Times show their drinking water has contained arsenic at concentrations that have been associated with cancer.”
The New York Times’ use of data supplied by an advocacy group that has a well-documented history for misusing scientific information, and which has an obvious agenda, contributed to a firestorm of media coverage not just in the Reno, Nevada area after the stories were published, but all around the country as water purveyors scrambled to counter the misinformation reported by EWG and the news media.
This is exactly what the Environmental Working Group wants. Bonnie Raitt and Erin Brockovich spelled out the intent: “(EWG is) not afraid to shake things up if that’s what it takes to give people the information they need to make this world a better place.”
Even if it means using scare tactics and the peddling of misinformation. An EWG representative was even more specific: “We’re trying to move Congress and the EPA to set tougher standards for drinking water across the country so we don’t end up with situations where people drink water with 10, 20 or 30 different contaminants in it, and have the authorities say that that’s safe.”
Meanwhile, scientists and regulators were forced to counter a glut of misleading claims in news reports while consumers watched perplexed, wondering if in fact their water is safe to drink.
After publication of the New York Times article and EWG’s media blitz, dozens of water purveyors around the country issued public statements that contradicted claims made by the Times and EWG. The impact was likely less dramatic than the original news stories.
Despite protests as to accuracy, Charles Duhigg and the Times won a number of journalism awards for his water quality stories, including one from the National Association of Science Writers.