Tread carefully when speaking with the media 1


One of the most important professional lessons is to only talk about what you know.  I found this out personally after a disastrous pre-conference workshop many years ago where I did not understand what the workshop participants expected until I began seeing blank and quizzical expressions from the, thankfully, small audience.

On Australian radio on 14 December 2011, a geologist became embroiled in an interview on asbestos and cancer.

Ian Plimer is a well-known Australian geologist and is a professor of mining geology at the University of Adelaide.  Plimer is a controversial and outspoken critic of climate change.  The climate change debate is a fringe consideration in occupational health and safety but today,  Professor Plimer entered the debate on asbestos, a carcinogen that is responsible for hundreds and thousands of work and non-work related deaths.

On ABC Radio, prominent Australian journalist and writer on asbestos industry issues, Matt Peacock, took Ian Plimer to task about Plimer’s 2008 claim that chrysotile, or white asbestos, is not carcinogenic.  In the audio of the interview, Plimer bristles at Peacock’s questions, with some justification given that the interview stemmed from Plimer’s new book that is not about asbestos (a video of Plimer’s speech at the launch is available online). But in his blustering replies Plimer refuses to deny saying that chrysotile is non-carcinogenic.

Plimer states that since 2008

“…. the mineralogy and the epidemiological work has been done since then and it is now quite equivocal as to what chrysotile does. Three or four years ago we had a different view.”

He continues to say that asbestos is a commercial name for chrysotile and refers to a mineralogy website, Min dat (believed to be www.mindat.org), to support his statement that

“…chrysotile is a serpentine mineral……..whereas asbestos minerals are amphibole minerals.”

Mindat’s reference page  for chrysotile confirms that it is a serpentine mineral but also states that a synonym for chrysotile is “white asbestos”. White asbestos is identified elsewhere as carcinogenic.  A 2006 asbestos-related document from the World Health Organisation states:

“Asbestos (actinolite, amosite, anthophyllite, chrysotile and tremolite) has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as being carcinogenic to humans.” [link added]

Peacock justifies this out-of-context questioning of Ian Plimer by saying that the 2008 statement undercuts Plimer’s professional authority and credibility.  This is a fair comment even though the asbestos question seems to have blindsided Plimer.

Speak about what you know

A major lesson for safety professionals is not to speak about issues outside of one’s area of expertise.  And if asked a question that is on the fringes of one’s profession and one’s state of knowledge, do not provide a definitive answer or statement, as appears to have happened in correspondence with Matt Peacock in 2008. (Peacock has been approached for additional information on the correspondence he references.)

Also any contact from a journalist or interview request from a writer does not have to be immediately accepted.  It is possible and, indeed, common to ask for additional information on the subjects to be covered, the types of questions that will be asked and the audience for the content.  If a question is asked that one does not want to answer or is outside of the agreed discussion area, say so when refusing to answer.

Basic media training is readily available and it is highly recommended if one is considering talking to the press and raising one’s professional profile.

Questioning

SafetyAtWorkBlog supports the questioning of myths through the application of “clear thinking” – a subject that was specifically included in secondary schools several decades ago.  Current schools in Australia include the development of  analytical thinking in the curriculum.  Propaganda exists at both ends of the political spectrum and people need a “bullshit radar” through the development of analytical skills.

Both Matt Peacock and Ian Plimer are questioners.  We should all be questioners, we should also respect those who hold alternate views but there is also a point at which overwhelming evidence establishes facts.  It is a fact that asbestos is a carcinogen and it is my wish that Ian Plimer had stuck to geology.

Kevin Jones

One comment

  1. “if asked a question that is on the fringes of one’s profession and one’s state of knowledge, do not provide a definitive answer or statement”

    Good point! You never want what you said to come back and haunt you. There is no shame in knowing if it’s not your specialty. Don’t make it up!

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