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No. 64 – Preparing for News Media Interviews – 4

March 14, 2012

Telling the Truth – What Does it Mean?

Always tell the truth! This sounds like good professional and ethical advice, right? But, what does truth mean to a reporter? Since reporters are not usually technical experts, they normally have no way to verify the accuracy of your statements. While reporters expect you to “tell the truth” they often do not have the time, resources, or inclination to determine what “the truth” means for any particular situation. Their goal is to cover all sides of a story for balance and objectivity, not necessarily determining who is right.

For balance, a reporter may report opposing views with the assumption that each party is telling the truth, but from a different perspective. As scientists we try to speak “scientific truth” based upon logical analysis of the data and fundamental principles of science, which we can defend to our peers. Since we speak the truth, why then do people not accept our views?

Does Perception Equal Truth and Reality?

Technical experts were chided, by a person claiming to represent the public at an NRC workshop, for discounting public perceptions of radiation risk. This person stated that for a family living along the route for transportation of radioactive wastes the risks are real and not a perception. And therefore, they deserve protection accordingly. Does this mean that we have to assure protection for whatever someone can imagine?

What Are Perceptions?

I like to suggest that perceptions are “what other people have” and they often seem strange. Isn’t it nice to know that we do not have perceptions? After all, we are the holders of the truth about radiation safety. But, what about our ongoing debates about LNT. Are these about reality, scientific truth, or perceptions?

The News is Oriented Towards Public Perceptions

Since the public is often afraid of radiation, reporters will tend to favor interviews with people that perpetuate the popular perception. Reporters also like to present their antinuclear stories with an emotional appeal that will capture the majority’s attention. When perceptions are perpetuated, the perceived problems may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, reporters like to perpetuate the idea that disposal of radioactive waste is an unsolvable problem. When something is said often enough, it becomes the truth for many people.

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