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Matt Wald on the News Media and Nuclear Energy

Matt Wald
Last week, NEI's Matt Wald gave a short talk to the NEI Lawyers Committee on why the media covers nuclear energy the way it does. After spending 33 years working for the New York Times, it's clear he knows of what he speaks. Here's a short excerpt:
Most reporters and editors can’t tell the difference between a kilowatt and a kilowatt-hour and many of them don’t know why they’d want to tell the difference. That makes it unlikely they’re going to give a clear picture to their readers or viewers. Add onto that some fuzzy thinking among the general public, that includes ideas like, “electricity is a human right and therefore ought to be free,” and you’ve got a recipe for mis-communications.

Nuclear comes out badly not because it’s nuclear, but because of several overarching attitudes in newsrooms. One is that editors like disagreements, he said/she said. It’s an easy way to structure a news story. But the editors and reporters have rather limited ability to independently evaluate the arguments. Why do we have this persistent societal meme that vaccines cause autism?

Because news media got it started and to some extent, keep it alive. The idea that proximity to power lines causes cancer. If it can’t be disproved, it’s a good story. Journalists dislike expertise. They discount it. Maybe it’s the evolving nature of human knowledge. This year, we’ve changed our minds and high cholesterol doesn’t come from your diet. Some fats are good for you. DDT was a modern marvel of the mid-20th century because it nearly wiped out malaria. It also nearly wiped out bald eagles.

We were running out of landfill space. We were running out of oil. We aren’t any more.

Journalists also dislike the government, and pillars of the establishment. That started in Vietnam and it’s still true. Journalists sometimes think of themselves as speaking truth to power, or maybe to the power company. The operating theory is sometimes that if somebody sounds like he knows what he’s talking about, he must be wrong.

And, of course, some people don’t like power companies. We have a bias against big business, and reactors are always big business.

There’s another problem. Editors and reporters are biased against risk, without being able to compare risks. The risks of measles epidemics. The risks of generating the same electricity with other technologies. The risks that banning genetically modified crops adds to world hunger. These risks aren’t probabilities; they’re certainties.

Applied to the nuclear context, this worldview keeps alive the idea that the spent fuel pools of boiling water reactors are kept in tree houses, in tin shacks.

These ideas aren’t confined to newsrooms. They are common among TV viewers, newspaper readers, internet browsers, guests waiting in the green rooms, and people who obsess over situations we haven’t yet resolved, like nuclear waste. There’s an aversion, a vague sense of dis-ease. For some people, Nuclear is the N word. Not understanding has its downside. Familiarity may breed contempt, or so the cliché goes, but black boxes breed fear.
The full text of the speech, "Nuclear Power: Redeeming Energy's Prodigal Son," can be found on our website.

Comments

Anonymous said…
This is a really interesting post. I went and read Matt's entire speech at the link you provided. Well worth the read.

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