Concern Mounts about Electromagnetic Fields; Media Accused of Poor Coverage

Article excerpt

St. Louis has become the staging ground for one of a growing number of national battles over electromagnetic fields, otherwise known as EMFs. In recent years, powerline projects across the United States have sparked concern among environmental activists and the general populace. In the St. Louis suburb of Webster Groves, neighborhood groups formed Citizens United For Responsible Energy (CURE) in the fall of 1993 to battle a 12-mile transmission line of 138,000 volts intersecting more than 20 communities in St. Louis County.

Activists with CURE have accused Union Electric Co. (U.E.) and municipal officials in several suburban cities of failing to notify residents about the project until 120-foot power poles were being erected in their backyards--too late for them to organize an effective effort to block the project. CURE also levels criticism at the area press for not providing more coverage of the multimillion-dollar project before it began, and for not giving the public a better understanding of EMFs as a potential health hazard. Some scientific studies suggest that EMFs could be responsible for various forms of leukemia, cancer, birth defects and nervous disorders.

The local EMF battle was discussed last month at a Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) meeting, where a panel of journalists and parties to the controversy analyzed media coverage of the issue. Bruce Gordon, a reporter for KTVI--TV (Channel 2), candidly admitted that local television has "done a lousy job" in reporting the EMF story. Gordon spoke of the "buck-ten" rule of the TV news format, which allows for only a few seconds to be devoted to most stories.

Gordon said an issue as complex as EMF and the environment required much more time to sort out than TV news is willing to spend on one item. He said the most TV coverage can do is to show an interesting picture of the poles going up and make the point that some neighbors aren't very happy about it.

Seth Langton, a Webster Groves architect and spokesman for CURE, said that TV's cursory treatment makes it too easy for the general public to dismiss legitimately concerned citizens as a bunch of cranks: "The stories have basically been negative. It says here's a group of citizens who've organized to protest some powerlines. It's largely negative and makes it look like it's an isolated situation. But it's going on all over and I know that from articles that I've seen in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times."

Susan Gallagher, a spokeswoman for Union Electric, had her own bone to pick with the local press. Gallagher said the press focuses too much on the battle between two opposing sides, and not enough on the science that could ease public concern. "We're frustrated that the independent expert never is shown and they're available," said Gallagher. She cited coverage of a forum sponsored by the city of Webster Groves in November, where energy experts offered their views on the health risks of EMFs.

"What we face is an issue of 'Ahh, ha, the media is reporting on this issue--there must be something here.' And yet, it's all watered down when we say that there's still a lot of uncertainty here (on EMF health risks)," said William Allen, reporter for the Post. Allen said the EMF story was complicated by two factors, which he called the "outrage factor" and the "exotic technology factor."

"Risks that people can take steps to alter, that are in their control, are more acceptable than risks which seem to be beyond their control," said Allen. While people can make a choice on whether to smoke cigarettes with their attendant health risks, they often cannot make a choice on new high voltage lines coming through their back yards, noted Allen. This lack of choice can prompt citizen outrage, even though the individuals involved may be at far more risk from their own cigarette smoking than from whatever health risks might be posed by powerline electromagnetic fields. …