FrankenJournalism

By Keith Kloor | May 29, 2013 10:15 am

Whatever your opinion of the worldwide protest against Monsanto this past weekend, one thing is true: It deserved media coverage. Lots of noisy people with colorful signs took to the streets to voice their opposition to GMOs and the company that has come to symbolize them. It was an event tailor made for TV.

So when CNN’s Jake Tapper announced on Tuesday that his show–The Lead–was covering the Monsanto protest, I looked forward to watching the segment. Tapper is one of the best political journalists in Washington. I’ve long admired his work. (In 2013 he moved from ABC to CNN.) He recently scored big with a major scoop on the Benghazi ‘scandal.’ Tapper is a journalist who gets a story right.

Alas, his reportage on the Monsanto protest was flawed from the start, when he matter of factly told viewers that 2 million people in 436 cities and 52 countries had turned out for the March on Monsanto. This is a claim that the protest leaders have made and spread with much success. Reporters know better than to repeat verbatim the turnout claims of organizers. In this case, there is also good reason to think that the 2 million number is a tad inflated, to put it charitably.

At any rate, on the website where the segment appearsCNN exhibited the right perspective and skepticism after the show aired:

Two million people in more than 50 countries marched over the weekend in protest against a company called Monsanto, organizers claimed. CNN could not independently verify those numbers.

But what annoyed me most about the piece is when Tapper used a much maligned 2012 study as a sensationalist prop to explain what, in part, was firing up the protesters about Monsanto:

Some of the outrage was sparked by shocking photos showing massive tumors that developed on rats that ate genetically modified corn over a lifetime.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Caen, France. It has been criticized by many in the scientific community, and by the European food safety authority, who said it is simply not up to scientific standards.

Even so, the disturbing tumor photos lead many to question their own standards about what exactly they are eating.

This is the same study that some reporters allowed themselves to be manipulated on, which then allowed the dubious research findings to be uncritically reported in the first wave of media coverage. Even though Tapper correctly noted the eventual widespread scientific criticism of the study, I still find it disingenuously used in the CNN segment. I guess the producers found those photos of the tumorous rats irresistible.

Tapper, to his credit, engaged with my initial criticism on Twitter and said I was making a “subjective assertion,” which is a fair rejoinder. Still, it just seems like a vicious cycle, in which a badly reported (and scientifically rebuked) study from last year is now recycled in a new story about why people are fearful of GMOs. I also have a feeling that those pictures of the tumor-ridden rats splashed across TV screens probably made a greater impression on viewers than Tapper’s acknowledgement of the scientific criticism of the study. But that’s just my subjective interpretation of how people process information.

My other complaint about the segment is the way Monsanto is framed as the other side of the story on the health and safety aspect of GMOs, resulting in this:

On its website, Monsanto states, “plant biotechnology has been in use for over 15 years, without documented evidence of adverse effects on human or animal health or the environment.”

CNN could have presented that same information as coming from recognized scientific authorities, such as the AAAS and the World Health Organization, or other credible experts, like Pam Ronald. That would have given viewers unfamiliar with the GMO issue a more accurate take on the state of the science.

As far as the impetus for the weekend protest, what is most likely responsible for fanning the flames of GMO outrage in the United States is the recent passage of a congressional provision that has been widely referred to informally as the “Monsanto Protection Act.” This measure has been depicted rather one dimensionally as giving special regulatory exemptions to agricultural seed companies like Monsanto, but as NPR reports,

a closer look at the language of the provision suggests it may not be granting the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] any powers it hasn’t already exercised in the past.

“It’s not clear that this provision radically changes the powers USDA has under the law,” Greg Jaffe, director of the Biotechnology Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

If you read the provision closely (it’s on page 78, Sec. 735, of this PDF), you’ll see that it authorizes the USDA to grant “temporary” permission for GMO crops to be planted, even if a judge has ruled that such crops were not properly approved, only while the necessary environmental reviews are completed. That’s an authority that the USDA has, in fact, already exercised in the past.

Nonetheless, appearances have trumped reality and the so-called “Monsanto Protection Act” has become a rallying cry for GMO opponents. Tapper in his CNN report covered this angle of the story but overlooked the nuances provided by NPR. For a more entertaining version of the simplistic narrative, watch this Jon Stewart bit.

I understand that, with a visual medium like TV, the GMO controversy is bound to be depicted in stereotypical fashion. But need the stories always be outfitted with white hats and black hats?

Look, is Monsanto a multinational behemoth that aims to maximize its profits and protect its own interests? Of course, just like Apple, Nike, and other industry titans. And activists and journalists should do what they do to keep these giants accountable for their corporate behavior.

But making a company out to be an evil bogeyman is something else entirely. I realize it helps advance the anti-GMO cause, but that doesn’t mean journalists have to play along to the same script. This may come as a shock to some, but activists, be they well-intentioned or not, have their own agendas. And if one of them tells you that 2 million protesters participated in a march against Monsanto, you probably shouldn’t take that at face value. And if one of them tells you that Monsanto is poisoning humanity with its GMOs, you probably should ask someone other than Monsanto if that’s true, preferably a reputable outside expert or two.

Unfortunately, the norms of journalism being what they are, I fully expect future news stories about GMOs to continue to be rife with Frankenfood tropes, hyperbolic rhetoric, and villainous portrayals of a certain agricultural company.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: biotechnology, GMOs, science, select
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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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