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  • Date Submitted: 10/04/2011 08:19 AM
  • Flesch-Kincaid Score: 37.5 
  • Words: 3039
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Reporting on Risk:Who Decides What's News?
William Lanouette*
Introduction

Some editors take offense when a "news release" arrives on their desk, but look more kindly on a "press release" -- because they think it's their job to decide what's news. At times, however, it takes more than an editor's whim to decide what's news, especially among the national news media, as two stories about the radiation risks posed by federal government programs demonstrate.

The first story broke in the national media in October 1988 with revelations of serious nuclear reactor accidents and radiation risks to workers, the public, and the environment; the second, in December 1993, identified six of the eighteen persons injected with plutonium in federal radiation experiments, cited scores more subjects of similar federal programs, and reported hundreds more experiments on unidentified persons as well as deliberate radioactive releases from federal facilities close to inhabited areas.

Yet both stories were known generally to reporters for years before. Both stories had already been covered in a few regional, specialized, and national publications. And both stories had been the subject of congressional hearings and reports. On their own, these two stories about radiation risks had been considered marginal, or regional, or too specialized for widespread attention. Both became national stories only when new elements were added.

The public and public officials learn the most about various risks from the news media, often in dramatic and abbreviated forms: in breathless news "updates" and banner headlines. Health and safety issues, as well as subtler questions about environmental destruction or medical ethics, must filter through an information system that thrives on specific events, novelty, and drama. In that context, a general risk such as radiation exposure is usually too subtle or too complex to gain national prominence. But add an ingredient or two and the subtle can...

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