|THE FUROR OVER FISSION|
The Images and Realities of Nuclear Technologies
November 20, 1996
The Nuclear Power and Fear
Other Forum Topics
How has morality impacted the growth of nuclear technology?
Can nuclear power overcome nuclear fear?
How do we overcome nuclear fear?
Isn't nuclear fear better than nuclear arrogance?
Will fear ebb as memory of the Cold War fades?
Is nuclear fear an American phenomena?
A question from Dr. Rick Strickert
of Austin, TX
Chernobyl dose claim by PBS Web page
You state on your Web page, "It is estimated that as many as 4.9 million people have been exposed to significant doses of radiation."
This term "significant doses" has one meaning to the nuclear community, another to regulators, another to the public, and still another to anti-nuclear groups. Use of terms that have different definitions or IMAGES to different members of the audience is one of the problems the news media needs to correct, as, I hope, Dr. Weart will point out.
Please comment on the role of the media.
Dr. Spencer Weart responds:
The media bring serious biases to nuclear issues, as to many issues with involuntary risks (exposure to power lines, carcinogenic chemicals, etc.). To sell newspapers or television advertising time you need to engage an audience with an image or a phrase that hits them personally--for example, "exposure" to a "significant dose" of something. It is in the interest of the media to emphasize the amount of danger this represents.
Of course the media also need to give real information, but they are free to offer different opinions, and uncertainty increases the anxiety that keeps the audience coming back for more. Experts will always disagree on just how large a dose of anything is "significant." Compared to what, the risk of getting cancer from air pollution? Of being killed by a rattlesnake?
In nuclear issues there's an even more serious media bias: polls show that the average reporter (especially on TV) is much more anti-nuclear energy than the average expert or member of the public. This seems to reflect a deep split in modern society, between the class of people who are good at communicating (writers, professors, etc.) and the class who are better at handling bureaucratic and technological affairs (including nuclear experts, who are mostly terrible at communicating).
With the medium we're using now it's a new game; the forces behind these biases don't work the same way. It will be interesting to see how that affects nuclear debates.
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