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Environmentalists and Journalists Need to Keep it Real

environmental news reportingMedia attention in environmental science is a good thing.  But sometimes the labels attached to scientific phenomena can be highly problematic.  First, the "ozone hole".  Yeah, I see why the media attached the label, but it's not like there is some "hole" up in the ozone layer sorta wandering around.  What the research showed (and shows) is that there has been a steady decline in upper atmospheric ozone concentrations.  Simply put, its really more of an ozone thinning.  Second, "global warming."  This one has gotten folks into a lot of hot water lately (pardon the pun).  The work of the IPCC and thousands of other scientists is solid and undeniable, but the term "global warming" is really an oversimplification.  It didn't take long for climate change deniers to latch on to this oversimplification nor did it take long for those with chemical interests to attack the ozone layer.

Environmental scientists and more importantly the media that cover their work MUST report honestly on what is happening in the world.  Overstatements, oversimplification, and exaggeration, DO sometimes scare folks into action.  In the long run, however, dishonesty ultimately leads to lack of trust and a lack of unity.

Today I stumbled upon a terrible example of exaggerated reporting.  I found it on my absolute favorite environmental news reporting site, Grist.  The article title reads, "Seriously mindblowing photo of toxic spill damage in Hungary."  The text below the image reads, "This is not a before photo and an after photo stitched together."  The event took place in Western Hungary in the communities of Kolontar, Devecser and Somlovasarhely two years ago.  The Environmental Ministry of Hungary, NPR, The New York Times, and countless others covered the event.

That said, the photograph on Grist is not real!  It can't be real.  Check it out and see what I mean.  I am an environmental scientist, not a designer, but the problems with this image should be recognizable to anyone with an elementary design background or just a careful eye.  It lacks any sense of perspective, fails to include the red aluminum staining uniformly across the image, and fails to account for terrain.  It's a fake!

So why did this photojournalist choose to create this image?  Well, he wasn't exactly making this all up.  The event really did occur and it really left a terrible red stain on the landscape.  If I had to guess, the photographer was trying to share a message and did exactly what nearly everyone in media does when sharing a message, he exaggerated.  In my view, it is precisely this type of exaggeration that has polarized the environmental movement.  Those who are skeptical of environmental messages find with a click of a button right wing TV personalities ready to uncover the liberal left conspiracy.  What they uncover is almost never poor research, but overstatements and exaggeration on the part of media.

Political polarization of environmental issues may well be one of the greatest barriers to any serious change.  Already our 2012 presidential candidates have managed to draw a thick line in the sand on which either stands.  The way this polarization occurs can be seen clearly in the comments section of the Grist blog I've referred to here.  Take a look.  An early review commented that the photo looked fake, others scolded the review as being right-wing conservatism.  Others attacked these comments as perpetuating liberal garbage.  The meaning of the whole article, and the devastating impact of a hazardous waste spill are lost entirely.  Honesty always has and always will be the best policy!

Vincent M. Smith

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