Neue Zürcher Zeitung, April 16, 2004
For weeks in 2001 mad cow disease was a prime topic in Germany and Switzerland. Every day the media reported the number of cattle which had tested positive for BSE. Very rarely, however, was comparative data provided, data which would be necessary to make a rational estimate of the risk. What was not said was that compared to the 292 animals tested positive for BSE in Germany until March 2003, 14.5 million cattle were declared healthy. This gives a negligible proportion of 0.002% of animals infected. In Switzerland, until the end of 2003, 452 out of 1.6 million cattle were found to be sick, which also corresponds to a tiny proportion of 0.03%. On this basis, even laymen could have understood how small the danger was of getting infected meat on their plates. Reporting this, however, the journalists would have damaged their own story. A lack of figures, non-existent comparisons of risk, along with a sensationalist choice of words in headlines, captions and articles and highly dramaticized illustrations all contributed to the inadequacy of the reporting on BSE/CJD.
There was something else that could not be learned from the media: so far nobody in Switzerland or Germany has come down with the new variant of the Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (nvCJD), which is associated with consumption of BSE-infected meat. Even if the danger of infection had been only half as large as represented three years ago in the German media, the British and the Swiss, both of whom had been affected by BSE much earlier than the Germans, would have been extinct long before mad cow disease reached the German cowsheds.
Considerable economic damage
The economic damage caused by the BSE crisis in Germany and in Switzerland was considerable. Whole herds of healthy cattle were slaughtered. Beef consumption decreased by half due to consumer uncertainty, as shown in a chart in the industry research journal Media-Tenor. The beef market collapsed completely. The consequences of this were a reduced working week, a contraction in the job market and high taxpayer expenditure to limit the consequences of the crisis.
To what extent did the reporting over BSE cause this economic damage? Are the media to be blamed for all this? The communication researcher from Mainz, Hans Mathias Kepplinger, who has dealt with the consequences of media sensationalism particularly thoroughly, points out that media reporting is not the only cause of the damage. The incontestable fact that several causes contributed, does not, however, exclude all media responsibility. The media are considered to have a strong influence on attitudes and behavior, whenever consumers have no personal experience of issues. False estimates from the media can therefore have far-reaching consequences.
Underestimation of AIDS
Judging from the reporting of BSE and similar cases, one can initially reach the conclusion that journalists are inclined to exaggerate newly recognized risks, both in terms of content and of quantity of coverage. But this is only one side of risk communication. The overestimation of new risks often means the underestimation or the neglect of long-known dangers, even when their potential rises again. Giving little or no information at all can also have serious economic consequences. This is demonstrated by the example of reporting on AIDS.
800 people in Switzerland and approximately 2,000 in Germany get infected by AIDS every year. Around 70 HIV-related deaths were registered last year in Switzerland, and in Germany deaths numbered 600. To the personal damage caused by AIDS must be added the resulting costs to the healthcare system, to the economy and to the community, through loss of working hours and decreased tax income. AIDS thus represents a much graver risk than mad cow disease and the new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob.
Nevertheless, reporting on AIDS has decreased, while BSE, Anthrax and SARS became hot risk topics. Even the increase in the number of cases of HIV diagnosed in 2002 was not reported, despite involving teenagers and young adults. AIDS was shifted thematically far overseas, to Asia, Africa and the USA. In Switzerland 59% of new cases of infection were the result of heterosexual contacts, but not even that was aggressively publicized by the media.
It is precisely those increasingly endangered young people who glean their information mainly from television and other media targeting young people because of insufficient family communication about this intimate topic. When these media sources fail to discuss the danger of AIDS, they contribute to young people underestimating their own risk of getting the illness.
To get straight to the point: the “dormant” risk in media reporting is AIDS, but what was extensively reported was BSE, while the most dangerous risk is still traffic. Naturally it is difficult for journalists who have no scientific training and are confronted with contradictory expert opinions to operate risk communication in such a way that the public can estimate a risk potential realistically. But frequently the self-interest of journalists and media enterprises is partially responsible for the way risks in the media are elevated to hysteria or played down and silenced. Risk communication is dependent on the public: topics that sell well get exaggerated, and the popular press inevitably leads the way for the others, regardless of how serious they claim to be. Current new risk topics have a higher “market value” than long-term problems to which the public has become accustomed. Those risks, first presented a long time ago, get faded out by the media, because their news value is exhausted.
Economy of research
The dramatization or hushing up of risks by the media can also be explained by “economy of investigation”. Under the pressure of competition and time, laborious, time-intensive journalistic research is rather rare. Often only one source is used. With complex risks, journalists rely on the opinions of experts. Frequently, however, they rely on those who are immediately available and used to dealing with the media; this in itself does not guarantee their scientific competence. Lastly, “economy of investigation” also encompasses the tendency to follow in colleagues’ footsteps. Journalists gladly jump onto the moving train when opinion-leading media discover a “new” risk. Instead of giving information about real relations and developments, they thus easily become, without wanting to, subject to “collective servitude” and therefore “victims of groupthink”, as the American social researcher Irving L. Janis once described it.
The text is an extract from a speech at the annual congregation of the Swiss Society of Communication and Media Science. The authors are members of the newly founded European Journalism Observatory of the University of Lugano.
(Translation: Daniel Jost)