Media Magazine

Toxic Coverage Illuminates Mainstream Media Bias

Posted on the 20 March 2012 by Realizingresonance @RealizResonance


Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.

Europe has blocked US made products from importation due to unsafe chemicals like lead, mercury, and phthalates, under its Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulations (“Europe Blocks US Toxic Products”). The European rejection of domestically manufactured products for failing to meet safety standards should concern the US public, so the absence of US mainstream media reporting must be explained. As information gate-keepers, the mass media has the power to determine what will become news or not. The large media conglomerates typically leave the news gate-keeping and agenda setting to government officials, with minor incorporation of citizen generated discourse (Bennett 15). On the other hand, consumers find political and international news stories boring, creating their own gate-keeping effect on story selection given the profit maximizing bias of mainstream media (Bennett 18). In this case evidence suggests that it is the silence of politicians rather than the disinterest of the public that has resulted in the lack of mainstream coverage of US toxic products.

A vigorous public debate was promoted by the mainstream media in 2007 when it was discovered that some toys imported into the US from China had been manufactured using lead based paint. For weeks the press investigated tainted Chinese toys, putting the issue squarely on the public agenda. This forced Congress to hold hearings on the matter, in which companies such as Target and Mattel were called to testify in front of prominent Senators, all expressing bipartisan outrage (Lipton). As a sensational media frenzy about public health, the Chinese tainted toy panic fit within the typical parameters of consumer and profit driven news (Bennett 20). Therefore the apathy of “lifestyle consumers” (Bennett 18) cannot be the scapegoats for the media’s failure to disseminate a story about European rejection of America made lipstick with unsafe levels of lead contamination (“Europe Blocks US Toxic Products”). If consumer disinterest is not to blame for this lack of reporting then the gatekeepers must have had other considerations.

The mass media has the power to set the public agenda which gives it power over the political process. This power became greatly concentrated after the Telecommunications Act of 1996 eliminated the barriers to media ownership, resulting in the domination of the news by only six large media conglomerates. This has caused the duplication of news stories (Bagdikian 6), shifting bias towards narratives that protect producers over consumers (Bagdikian 14), and promotion of corporate leaning value systems (Bagdikian 25). The predisposition to avoid negative reporting on corporate business practices, like those of the US chemical industry, is exasperated by the concern for advertising dollars. In this atmosphere many political stories will not be covered without sponsorship by a prominent politician or government official (Bennett 15). In the third quarter of 2009 the large chemical companies Dow Chemical and DuPont spent $1.4 million (“Dow Chemical Spends”) and $1.2 million (“DuPont Spent Over”) respectively on lobbying efforts to Congress and federal regulators. There were similar attempts from interested industries to influence European legislators in order to weaken the REACH chemical regulations, but to no avail (“Europe Blocks US Toxic Products”). The absence of a political champion for this issue in the US mainstream media is strong evidence that the chemical industries’ domestic lobbying efforts have been more successful than those in Europe.

Omission is the most common form of media distortion, and it prevents the public from discussing important issues by preempting the agenda (Parenti). It is not enough that these stories are available for consumers to search down on the web, because television remains the public’s primary source for political information, and consumer directed internet news does not necessarily unearth stories that the general public latches on to, absent a viral campaign. I have been a consumer of alternative news sources, like the group that broke the US toxic products story a couple of year back, Project Censored. For years when I attempt to educate the people I know about issues that are missing from the mainstream dialog I am typically met with apathy or skepticism. I agree with McLuhan that the “medium is the message”, because I have found it very difficult to convince others about the non-televised reality, at least in a way that makes them care. After learning more about the factors that cause media censorship I am concerned that important issues will not cut through the media malaise unless they serve a facet of the existing power structure. This won’t stop me from doing my best to make people aware of these public concerns. This is why I write a blog.

Jared Roy Endicott

Works Cited

Bagdikian, Ben H.. The New Media Monopoly. Updated and Revised Ed. Boston: Beacon Press Books, 2004. Print.

Bennett, W. Lance. News: The Politics of Illusion. Eighth Ed. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2009. Print.

“Dow Chemical Spent $1.4m Lobbying Gov’t in 3Q.” Associated Press. 12 Dec. 2009. Web. 14 Jan 2010.

“DuPont Spent Over $1.2m Lobbying Government in 3Q.” Associated Press. Yahoo Finance. 12 Dec. 2009. Web. 14 Jan 2010.

Lipton, Eric. “Senators Urge More Stringent Rules for Toy Safety.” 13 Sep. 2007. Web. 9 Jan 2010.

Parenti, Michael. Inventing Reality: The Politics of News Media. Second Ed. New York: St. Martin Press, 1992. Web. 4 Sep 2010.

“Europe Blocks US Toxic Products”. Sonoma State University, 2009. Web. 7 Jan. 2010.

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