were shocked in early 1989 when they were told by the media that fish
caught near their coastline were massively contaminated with organochlorines.
The impact on the fish markets was immediate. Fish sales declined dramatically
costing the industry an estimated $500,000 each week. Many people blamed
the media for this. It was assumed that scientific studies had been
sensationalised and distorted in order to sell newspapers or improve
ratings. The director of the Southern California Coastal Water Research
Project who was visiting Sydney at the time advised government scientists
recent events in Sydney indicate a route of communication to the public
from the scientists should be developed. This may reduce the "scare"
from the press and shield the fishing industry from impacts produced
by false or inaccurate media reporting.
the two studies that were the basis for media stories were reported
accurately and did not overstate the results. The first study, which
triggered the media attention, was the 1987 Malabar Bioaccumulation
Study. The Sydney Morning Herald reported the results as follows:
FISH OFF SYDNEY BEACHES POLLUTED
tests on fish caught near Sydney's main sewage outfall at Malabar
have found dangerous levels of pesticides, up to 120 times above the
recommended safety limits...
red morwong had average concentrations of BHC of 1.22 parts per million,
with the blue groper showing 0.20 parts per million. For HPTE, the
red morwong showed average levels of 2.60 parts per million, with
the blue groper 0.25 parts per million.
were also traces of dieldrin in both fish, with the red morwong being
slightly over the recommended maximum levels.
the levels of BHC (Benzene Hexachloride) were on average 122 times the
National Health & Medical Research Council (NH&MRC) maximum residue
limits and the worst fish had much higher levels (250 times NH&MRC limits).
The newspaper did not even mention the heavy metal contamination of
the fish. What the scientists and engineers involved really objected
to had far more to do with their loss of control of this information
than the accuracy of the reporting. Various government bodies and politiicians
had kept this study quiet for a year and a half. The Herald had
not only published the information (which had been leaked to them) but
interpreted the levels of pesticides in the fish as being "dangerous".
with the media's reporting of scientific studies is sometimes really
a manifestation of a wider struggle over the control of information
and its meaning. The results of studies which are commissioned for a
purpose generally have political and social implications and various
groups have an interest in how such studies are reported. These groups
generally avoid presenting people with raw data that they can judge
for themselves and dislike journalists making their own judgements or
seeking the judgements of outside experts.
bioaccumulation studies undertaken in Sydney in 1987 and 1988 were at
the centre of a wider controversy over sewage pollution in Sydney and
as a result they were the focus of a just such a struggle to control
the flow and interpretation of information to the public. Media reporters,
far from being the villains of the piece, were pawns in a power struggle,
praised by environmentalists and rebuked by government scientists who
blamed them for the public protest that ensued.
Anderson, 'Overview of the Planned Environmental Monitoring Programme',
Morning Herald, 7th January 1989.