On the Beat

Sick of bird flu

This time two years ago, the press was busy working itself into a lather over an unlikely celebrity: H5N1, a strain of avian influenza that epidemiologists feared could mutate into an easily transmittable form that would sweep the world in a deadly pandemic. As millions of bird carcasses piled up and the virus spread across Asia and into Europe, media accounts became increasingly and predictably frantic.

Meanwhile, the human death toll held steady and then, in 2007, actually declined. These days, mentions of avian flu rarely crop up and, when they do, they tend to have a faintly ridiculous, almost nostalgic air about them, like worries about the Y2K bug or the coming Ice Age.

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MEDIA: Scaring Up a Story

We've heard this fish tale before. The New York Times spawned another wave of mercury scare stories this week when it ran an article on Wednesday alerting readers that Manhattan sushi joints might be serving them tuna with dangerously high levels of heavy metals. Nevermind that the link between certain fish and methylmercury has been well established for years , the thought that Nobu's maki rolls could be tainted was enough to cause a boomlet of similar news reports.

While it's generally a good thing that Americans get a better sense of just what's in the food they eat every day, most of these stories missed the mark. Out of all the alarmist coverage paid to which restaurants had the highest mercury levels, hardly any probed into the environmental questions at the bottom of the story. Where is this mercury coming from? How is it getting into our food supply? Are mercury levels increasing?

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MEDIA: Cracks in the Ice

Don't let its bland title fool you: "Escalating Ice Loss Found In Antarctica," an article appearing on the front page of yesterday's Washington Post, is far more dramatic than it sounds. Written by Marc Kaufman, a science writer for the Post, the story describes the accelerating break-up of the ice sheets that make up much of western Antarctica.

More than that, though, it's yet another blow to one of the more pernicious canards of the global warming "skepticism" movement: The assertion that because the Antarctic ice sheet is thickening in places, climate change is nothing to worry about.

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MEDIA: Digg Gets Real

The last time I wrote about Digg.com's offering of environmental news, the site was more X than Y. Instead of rewarding the best green stories out there, visitors to the news aggregator's environmental section mostly favored ain't-it-cool type pictures, ranging from the marginally informative to the thoroughly random. "For now, go to Digg to find an oddball story or new wallpaper for your desktop," I wrote last July, "but look to professional journalists for news on the environment."

Well, you should still go to professional journalists for eco-news, but Digg has gotten much better at compiling what those journalists produce, even if its collective news judgment remains uneven. There's still no shortage of random pictures if that's what you're looking for, but the site has changed a lot over the past six months. In addition to a redesign that improved its look and functionality, Digg very smartly decided to partition off its user-submitted news, video, and image postings. (These changes were all made a few months ago, by the way.)

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Getting the Candidates on Record, Part 2

Last night, voters in Iowa cast the first votes in the 2008 presidential contest. But assuming that voters got most of their news from the mainstream media, they voted with almost no knowledge of where the candidates stand on the environment.

Informed primary voters can easily find detailed breakdowns and analysis of the presidential hopefuls' positions on global warming and other environmental issues if they look online. But the press establishment – particularly TV news – has done a significantly worse job pressing candidates on the issue.

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Issue 25

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