News game not always compatible with science

Science Matters by David Suzuki
?All seafood could disappear by 2050, new report,? was the headline. But the psychological effect may as well have been: ?Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.?
Versions of the former headline abounded recently after a groundbreaking research article on marine biodiversity was published in the journal Science. ?Kiss your fish and chips goodbye? was another popular heading, as were takes on ?No more fish in the sea.?


On one hand, this kind of alarming headline could be potentially beneficial because it highlights the urgency of a dire situation in our oceans. Without that sense of urgency, no one will act to prevent a disaster from occurring and we really could lose most of our sea life. On the other hand, such headlines personally make me want to bury my head in the sand or stick my fingers in my ears and sing choruses of ?La la la, I can?t hear you.?
When news is so depressing and on such a huge scale, it can make individuals feel powerless. And when people feel powerless, they tune out. That?s not how change happens.
Interestingly, the actual title of the research article published in Science was ?Impacts of biodiversity loss on ocean ecosystem services.? The point about the potential for catastrophic declines in sea life abundance was a relatively minor one in the study, used to highlight the urgency of the need to change the way we manage our oceans. The main thrust of the article was much more interesting.
That thrust was the importance of biodiversity in maintaining healthy marine ecosystems. The international study, headed by researcher Boris Worm out of Dalhousie University in Halifax, looked at a variety of marine ecosystems and how well they handled stress. It concluded that the more diverse an ecosystem is, the better it is at dealing with stresses such as overfishing.
Biodiversity has long been seen as an important factor in the stability of land-based ecosystems. More biologically diverse ecosystems on land tend to be more stable, helping to secure the continued functioning of the entire system. This was the first comprehensive study to find the same is true for water-based ecosystems, discovering a consistent pattern across 32 small-scale experiments and through reviews of 12 coastal ecosystems.
The conclusion has major ramifications for the way we manage our fisheries, which still tends to be based on individual fish stocks, rather than the ecosystems in which they are embedded. According to the new study, we?re going about it all wrong. If you want to protect individual fish stocks, you really need to protect entire ecosystems.
Unfortunately, that story isn?t very newsy. Disappearing seafood is. Without the news hook of the dire predictions for the future of seafood, the article may not have made the front page, or any page at all in the popular press. So, either by chance or by design, the report?s authors rolled out their study baited with the sweet smell of disaster.
And reporters took to it like sharks to a chum line, resulting in headlines around the world. Most newspapers and television stations stuck to the ?total collapse? angle, often ignoring the biodiversity story altogether. More thoughtful journals, however, did focus on the actual thrust of the study ? fisheries management and biodiversity. In its news pages, Science used the headline ?Global loss of biodiversity harming ocean bounty,? for example, while The Economist ran with ?New research points to a better way of protecting fish stocks?.
Whether the popular press stories were motivational or paralyzing remains to be seen. But the fact remains that right now, the spectacular and the spectacularly awful make headlines. In the news game, the rest is just details. That puts the way the mainstream press reports news at odds with the way people become motivated and makes social change even more difficult than it already is.
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