Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Anything But Silent

In the summer of 1962, Best-Selling author Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, warning Americans of environmental dangers never before considered by the American public.  Although both the public and the press expressed skepticism of Carson’s scientific claims, Silent Spring would later be credited with kick-starting the modern environmental movement.  Carson’s argued that the widespread use of agricultural pesticides was “tilting the balance of nature” while poisoning humans, wildlife, and our delicate environment.  Controversy quickly erupted around Carson’s work – pitting defensive pesticide industries against the rising public awareness for environmental health.  The scientific community, food and water industries, wildlife protection agencies, concerned citizens, and the federal government all became involved in the presses’ eco-danger saga inspired by Silent Spring.

And while Carson’s research eventually led to a federal ban on the use of harmful pesticides like DDT, the public of the 1960’s simply questioned the truth of Carson’s claims and looked to the press for updates on the environmental investigation.

“The $300,000,000 pesticides industry has been highly irritated by a quite woman author whose previous works on science have been praised for the beauty and precision of the writing,” began The New York Times article titled “’Silent Spring’ is Now Noisy Summer” published in July of 1962.  The New York Times interestingly does not stick to one particular framing.  The article begins by painting a somewhat sensational picture – an unresolved drama between a female naturalist and industry driven agriculture tycoons – setting the framework for a story of intrigue.  The article then changes direction, turning into somewhat of a book review, summarizing general themes and claims made by Carson, to offer the reader a sense of source.  And throughout the majority of the story, the article frames the facts around legal proceedings and investigative language to allow context for powerful quotes detailing the debate from sources of opposite spectrums.  The New York Times plays with this variety, engaging readers in controversy while still providing an objective description of events.  Quotes used by the newspaper were not only relevant to the story, but truly embodied the nature of the debate.  “Most say that they can find little error of fact (within Carson’s book,)” said a industry spokesperson within the article, who then added “…The industry feels that she presented a one-sided case and has chosen to ignore the enormous benefits in increased food production and decreased incidence of disease….” This New York Times article allowed the voices of key players to frame their own accurate story and act as sufficient evidence of sources.

An article in The Los Angeles Times entitled, “Man’s Struggle Against Pests May Endanger Life,” begins with a question: “Is man poisoning his own environment by waging chemical warfare against plants and insect pests?”  The article frames its story around the history of insecticides and the significance of their use in relation to Carson’s book – especially their dangerous impacts on humankind.  The Los Angeles Times jumps focus a number of times within the story without the eloquence of The New York Times article.  But nevertheless, the reporter offers a great overview of the topic – from book sales, to environmental dangers, to industry uproar, and Carson’s response.  The Los Angeles Times article spends a great deal of time covering the details of Carson’s claims, giving readers an in-depth technical perspective.  The voice of sources is described rather than actually quoted.  This very balanced article concludes with an equally balanced quote from an FDA official stating, “There’s a deal we just don’t know yet… We need much more research on this whole problem.”

The eco-danger warning presented in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring created a journalistic opportunity not to be missed, by challenging prevailing assumptions of the time.  This event not only granted Silent Spring a position in the Newseum’s top stories of the 20th Century, but also landed Rachel Carson a spot in Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of the Century.


Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring.  Fortieth Anniversary Edition, First Mariner Books, 2002.

Man's Struggle Against Pests May Endanger Life LOUIS CASSELS Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File); Aug 19, 1962; ProQuest Historical Newspapers Los Angeles Times (1881 - 1986) pg. E8

'Silent Spring' Is Now Noisy Summer By JOHN M. LEE New York Times (1857-Current file); Jul 22, 1962; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2005) pg. 87

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