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MediaWatch August 1993

Vol. Seven No. 8

Two Views on the Ozone Hole

ABC vs. ABC

On July 1, ABC's Prime Time Live repeated questionable environmentalist claims that a decaying ozone layer is increasing skin cancer rates and blinding herds of sheep on the tip of South America. "Thanks to ozone depletion, experts are predicting 300,000 new cases of skin cancer in the future," Sam Donaldson warned.

John Quinones went to Punta Arenas, Argentina, supposedly the most affected area. He agreed with the apocalyptic line: "When it's not filtered by the ozone layer... [ultraviolet] radiation damages living tissue, causing skin cancer and cataracts." He noted ominously: "What happens to the people of Punta Arenas is a valuable lesson to the rest of the world. For recently scientists discovered that the ozone layer was also eroding over the northern hemisphere."

Quinones used only two quotes from a skeptical scientist, but 26 from doom-saying sources, like a local professor: "[Dr.] Magas believes the entire population of this town is an endangered species, thanks to the extreme levels of UV." Quinones didn't put on dermatologist Dr. Frederick Urbach, a consultant to the U.N., who told Reason magazine: "You can crunch numbers in a computer and get whatever result you want to come out."

In fact, ABC-owned KGO-TV in San Francisco broadcast a special in April 1992 with a much different conclusion. Reporter Brian Hackney traveled to Argentina, and talked with the only dermatologist in Punta Arenas, who said skin cancer cases have not increased. He further reported that the only cancer study done in the region indicated "sun tanning habits" explain the majority of skin cancer.

And the blind sheep? Hackney found no blind flocks, and had to travel hundreds of miles to find even one ranch with blindness problems (only 2 percent of the herd suffered from it). Hackney took samples of eyeballs from sheep with vision problems back to America for study. A biopsy report by a veterinary opthalmologist determined that a common microorganism caused the blindness, and that UV was at best a minor factor. After Hackney's investigation, the only thing damaged is Prime Time's environmental objectivity.