Environmental Issues Deserve Better Treatment by our Media

By Guest Author 30/09/2009

By Vicki Hyde, chair of NZ Skeptics Inc and editor of Scitechdaily.com

It was appalling to see the Herald on Sunday swallow the claims that you can detect poisons in Haruaki Gulf marine life via a discredited electro-acupuncture technique (Sept 27).

Their story ran under the heading “Samples positive for poison”*, citing campaigner Sarah Silverstar. Marine birds, oysters and dog vomit were apparently “tested in an Auckland clinic by EAV machine” and found to contain brodifacoum and 1080.

What the [Herald on Sunday’s reporter]* didn´t tell you was what EAV testing involves. EAV machines* combine acupuncture points with tiny measurements of the skin´s electrical resistance, claiming variously to map energy imbalances, detect AIDs viruses or correct imbalances in the immune system. Although popular in the alternative health industry, a number of civil, criminal and professional board actions around the globe have been taken against proponents for misleading claims, false advertising and even manslaughter.

This is like saying your fridge magnet can tell if you have swine flu. What´s next – will the Herald´s political reporters recommend that Parliament sit only when the Moon is in Scorpio? Or will they get their weather page information from chicken entrails? It´s certainly one of the stupidest and potentially most damaging examples of uncritical thinking I´ve seen in the media in some time.

You would hope that the [Herald on Sunday’s reporter] had taken a moment to wonder what EAV testing did and whether it was a credible claim. But no – maybe lack of experience, lack of education or lack of time intervened. Whatever it was, with the media employing fewer and less experienced journalists, we can expect to see more truly silly stories. The tragedy in this case is that it involves important issues for the New Zealand environment and one which desperately needs informed comment.

The 1080 debate is one which generates a great deal of heat but a paucity of solid or even considered information. Newspapers usually have the edge over television in being able to grab more than a soundbite. But the item by Vicki Wilkinson-Baker on One News the following Monday (Sept 28*) had it all over the Herald in providing thoughtful informed coverage of the issue.

The poisoning claims were made despite many different bodies citing testing by independent scientists, veterinary surgeons and pathologists which showed no symptoms of such poisoning in the dogs, dolphins, penguins, fish and shellfish checked. Information on these results is publicly available on the Department of Conservation website*. Furthermore, 1080 has not been used on any Gulf Islands since at least 2004.

Sarah Silverstar even admitted in her original email that testing by a reputable body showed there was no detectable traces at all in the penguin samples, but rejected this evidence.

“so what? these EAV test results prove the EXTREME sensitivity of life to these toxins.  We are talking parts per billion, parts per trillion.”

[all errors/cap in original email]

By all means critique the use of 1080 – that´s how application practices have improved over the years, after all – and keep looking for better alternatives because we desperately need them. But our native flora and fauna, and how we save them from introduced pests,

are far too important issues to be treated so naively. Many people rely on the media to act as a filter to bring us credible information on which we can make decisions. Perhaps that´s a naïvely optimistic hope in these days of advocacy journalism and “reality” programming, but I believe we should hold our major media to account.

There are a whole lot of problems with 1080 – it´s a complex issue with no simple solutions.

We can´t afford to stop using it altogether – that would condemn our native flora and fauna to extinction.

We can´t replace it with trapping and hunting – that would be completely impractical and uneconomic to achieve the sort of precarious control we have established to date.

We can´t say that any bykill of native birds means all use should be condemned – that´s like complaining that the firefighter who is busy trying to save your house is getting your favourite chair wet.

We certainly can´t use alternative health therapies, no matter how enthusiastic proponents might be about them – that would be like making our doctors put cobwebs on newly amputated stumps.

Shame on the Herald.

[The article Vicki Hyde refers to ran in the Herald on Sunday, which maintains a separate staff to the New Zealand Herald. The criticism of the story about EAV testing refers to the Herald on Sunday coverage].

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