Relying too heavily on press releases

Rocky failed to get the other side of issue

Feb. 23, 2008

by David Kopel

It's not uncommon for newspaper articles to owe a large debt to a press release. Last Monday's Rocky Mountain News article, "CSU study: Chemicals weaken male fertility," appeared to be heavily reliant on a Feb. 6 press release from Colorado State University. A good newspaper article will advance the story beyond the press release, and provide additional perspective. The Rocky article, though, was a step backward.

The CSU press release touted research by CSU professor Rao Veeramachaneni, regarding the effect on male fertility of exposure to man-made chemicals in the environment. It began by summarizing some research by other scholars: "For example, one study looking at sperm counts globally from 1940 - when chemicals first began to be widely produced - to the 1990s, indicates a 1.15 percent per year decline in sperm counts. These declines may be linked to chemical exposure."

In the Rocky, the "may be" was reported as a fact, with the unattributed statement that "Sperm counts are dropping about 1 percent per year." The study noted in the press release was conducted by Niels Skakkabaek and Richard Sharpe, published in 1993 in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet. Neither the 1993 article, nor the CSU press release claimed that 21st century sperm counts are currently declining by 1 percent annually, as the Rocky asserted.

Had the Rocky interviewed other scholars who have written about the effects of chemicals on fertility, it might have found that the Lancet factoid has been called into question. For example, researchers writing in the British Medical Journal pointed out that the Danish study got its data from other studies which had tiny sample sizes. Moreover, according to further analysis of the data in the British Medical Journal, "The original evidence does not support the hypothesis that the sperm count declined significantly between 1940 and 1990." (July 2, 1994, issue).

The Lancet authors themselves criticized overzealous environmental lobbyists for "taking something which is a clearly stated hypothetical link and calling it fact." (The Independent, July 7, 1995). Which is exactly what the Rocky did, too.

The press release explained that Veeramachaneni's "laboratory found that exposing tadpoles to dibutyl phthalate" resulted in underdeveloped voice boxes. As the press release noted, "Without a competitive mating call, the frogs will not be able to reproduce successfully."

The Rocky turned Veeramachaneni's study of laboratory-based exposures into a broad claim that "male frogs aren't developing the voice boxes they need to attract mates."

Veeramachaneni had studied the effects of laboratory exposure of dibutyl phthalate (a widely-used industrial chemical). His study did not conduct research as to whether dibutyl phthalate is so prevalent in the natural environment as to cause voice-box problems for frogs at large. Indeed a 1991 Dutch government study (Update of the Exploratory Report on Phtalates) found the level of phtalates in natural waters was decreasing.

Environmental exposure to man-made chemicals is a subject worthy of media attention. But whether current levels of chemical exposure are causing reproductive problems for humans and animals is a subject of scientific contention, and should have been covered by including additional perspective. Even a one-sided article should not have overstated what a press release really said.

The Gannett newspaper chain might buy the CSU student newspaper, The Rocky Mountain Collegian. Although Gannett has not interfered with the two Florida college newspapers it currently owns, the Columbia Journalism Review reports that after Gannett took over the Des Moines Register and The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., it dumbed them both down, mandating short, local fluff pieces at the expense of serious reporting. It's hard to see a benefit from a Gannett takeover.

"Barack, Darling," is the title of a fine post by John Aloysius Farrell on The Denver Post's PoliticsWest Web site (Feb. 16). Farrell suggests that an affectionate theme by the media has strongly favored Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton. Farrell also points to declining newspaper budgets to explain the absence of "multipart biographic series on the candidates."

Sens. John McCain and Clinton have, at least, been the subjects of biographical books, but the only in-depth biography of Obama is his autobiography. [Note: This last sentence was incorrect. Obama was the subject of a serious 2007 biography by David Mendell.]

Several years ago, I suggested that Maureen Dowd's columns ought to be dropped from the Denver papers. For whatever reasons, she no longer appears so often in the Denver papers, and that's a good thing.

Last week, Hillary Clinton, told a Texas audience that the president was "all hat and no cattle."

Last Sunday, Dowd took the anti- Bush quote, claimed that Clinton had been speaking about Obama, and then insulted Clinton for using the phrase. Seeing less of Maureen Dowd is a silver lining on the cloud of recent changes at the Denver dailies.

 

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