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Fortnightly Magazine - January 1 1996

One of my first assignments when I was a reporter for this magazine was a story on the flap over the Environmental Protection Agency's 1990 draft report on electromagnetic fields (EMF). I later covered passage of the Energy Policy Act and its EMF research and communications program, and was invited to the White House to see George Bush sign the bill into law.

I sat amid a sea of EMF researchers in San Diego as Maria Feychting and Anders Ahlbom officially presented the results of their Swedish childhood cancer study, and I have traveled to Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Savannah, Palm Springs, and even Copenhagen for EMF meetings and conferences.

I called Roberta Baskin of Street Stories the day after her EMF piece aired in 1993 and spent almost an hour with her going through it clip by clip. Even my family connections tie in to EMF: my father-in-law was a key advisor to former Rep. James Scheuer, one of the architects of the federal EMF RAPID Program.

You might call me the Forrest Gump of EMF. And Forrest is asking, What happened to the EMF debate?

To be sure, EMF is rarely front page news. The issue reached its media and public interest zenith in November 1992 with the Feychting-Ahlbom childhood cancer study. Since then, EMF has made a noticeable descent into relative obscurity, with virtually no major television stories since spring 1993.

Why Has the Issue Disappeared?

The easy answer is that the current lack of media and public interest in EMF reflects the lack of provocative research results. Yet studies, big studies, have been released over the last two-and-a-half years. For example, Dr. David Savitz issued his long-awaited U.S. utility worker study in 1995. He reported an increased risk of brain cancer, but after quick mention in The Wall Street Journal, the story disappeared.

Another possible explanation is that too much is going on. Savitz announced his results only one week after the Republicans formally took over Congress and began to implement their Contract with America. Medicare reform, Bosnia, and deficit reduction have dominated the news since then. Perhaps there hasn't been any room for EMF.

But this explanation also falls short. The Swedes announced their study results only a week after Bill Clinton won the 1992 election. And while heavy coverage of the study did not occur until after his inauguration, it did occur (em right in the middle of gays in the military, Kimba Woods, and Bosnia (again).

To understand what has happened to the EMF issue, we have to look more broadly at how the media has changed in the last 10 or 15 years:

People. Who, what, when, where, and why no longer drive media stories. Reporters focus on how events affect individuals. Just read the front page of any newspaper and count how many stories start off with a reference to a person rather than an event.

Conflict. Bad news is more interesting than good news, and news that pits one person or group against another is the best of all. Consider how