Amid Sensationalist GMO Swamp, Stellar Journalism Rises

By Keith Kloor | July 31, 2013 4:14 pm

During any given week, most articles on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) follow a simplistic and/or sensationalistic storyline. For example, here’s last week’s cover story in The Village Voice:

Village Voice Monsanto cover

The Monsanto-Is-Evil theme is a media staple, as is the GMO-Foods-Are-Dangerous theme, of which magazines like Details and Elle are piggybacking on. (I recently discussed the latter example). Too often urban myths are recycled credulously and coverage is botched altogether.

That’s why Amy Harmon’s absorbing New York Times story on GMO oranges has been widely praised by many scientists and science journalists. Her long feature is a breath of fresh air on a complex, politicized subject that has been frequently distorted in the media by agenda-driven activists and their influential enablers (who should know better).

Another much needed corrective to this sad state of affairs is the thoughtful (and ongoing) series of posts by Nathanael Johnson at Grist. This is uncharted (and probably uncomfortable) territory for Grist, given it’s prior coverage of GMOs, so it will be interesting to see where Johnson’s in-depth exploration of agricultural biotechnology leads him.

These are promising developments on the biotech beat–a welcome break from the canned GMO storylines playing out in the media on a daily basis.

A final note on Harmon’s story. It has inspired two posts over at MIT’s Tracker, an unreservedly laudatory one by Charlie Petit, and one with qualified praise from Paul Raeburn, who has a few quibbles that I don’t share.

Actually, there is one thing that Raeburn mentions that I too found odd: the numerous unnamed quotes. This puzzled me because there didn’t seem to be anything about the quotes that would warrant anonymity and usually when a source goes unnamed, it’s made clear why in the story. Raeburn speculates: “The only thing I can think of to explain this frequent use of anonymous quotes is that Harmon and her editor wanted to keep the light” on the protagonist in the story, “putting others into soft focus in the background.”

The decision to frame the narrative around Ricke Kress, the Florida executive who is obsessed with saving the orange industry from a horrible blight, seemed smart to me. But Raeburn thinks that made the piece one-sided: “The problem with the story is that we see far too much through Kress’s eyes.”  He goes on to explain that it would have been nice to hear from other parties, such as several of the pertinent regulatory agencies, critics of biotechnology, and even Monsanto, which has nothing to do with the GMO orange initiative but is mentioned periodically in the story because of its outsized role in the larger biotech debate. Raeburn wonders: Why doesn’t Harmon give the company a chance to respond to how it is characterized?

But doing all this makes for a different kind of story that Harmon crafted. To me, the piece is so compelling because we’re seeing it through Kress’s eyes. Diverting too much away from him would have disrupted the rhythm of the narrative. And it’s not as if Harmon doesn’t sketch out the broad outlines of where the science stands on GMOs and the political controversies muddying the public debate over it. She does all this very well, in fact.

Raeburn concludes (my emphasis):

Harmon’s piece is unlike anything else I’ve read on genetically engineered foods, and it does advance the argument, by showing that, in this case, refusing to adopt genetically engineered orange trees might mean wiping out the nation’s citrus crop. Choices have consequences. My aim here is not to wade through the arguments for and against the genetic engineering of food, but to get into the journalism, into the guts of the story, to see how Harmon did it–and what she might have done differently.

Indeed, Harmon’s aim for her story was not to wade through the pro/con GMO arguments, but to open a new window onto a complicated subject. She more than succeeded.

UPDATE: After writing this post, I noticed that Harmon responded via Twitter to some of Raeburn’s criticism:

 

  • http://pdiff.weebly.com/ Pdiff

    I didn’t find the unnamed sources unusual or problematic at all. It could simply be that the sources wanted it that way given the often vitriolic response of the non-GMO camp. Not everyone relishes the idea of verbal harassment, unsolicited attacks, calls to their employers or having pornographic photoshopped slurs featuring them spread around the internet.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      I hadn’t thought of that aspect. But this is your context (a legitimate one, I might add) not the general reader’s, who may be puzzled by the anonymous quotes.

      • http://pdiff.weebly.com/ Pdiff

        Yeah, I see that point.

    • mem_somerville

      Testify. Some people can’t speak out for personal issues and safety concerns. Some for career issues. Some just can’t be bothered getting into the swamp–they’d actually rather do science. Go figure.

  • bobito

    Articles like that in the Village Voice, and Elle previously, are part of a wonderful tool to garner support for ones cause… Indoctrinating the Uneducated! (Zimmerman case is perfect example: Many people were AMAZED he was found not guilty, when in fact, most experts were AMAZED it even went to trial!)

    These types of articles matter of factly state possessions that are based on information from just one side of the argument, give no glimmer of doubt about their positions, gloss over anything that doesn’t support their narrative, and leave the uneducated wondering why there is any opposition at all. Thus, the uneducated can be easily convinced that “Big Evil Corporations” or FoxNews must be funding massive dis-information campaigns to fool everyone else.

    How do we fix this? Shouldn’t their be some recourse? Should we be able to force publishers/broadcasts to state their biases before feeding them to us? It just gets depressing when I spend a lot of time looking into the facts of issues, only to have an uneducated position become de facto and, since we live in democracy, have the indoctrinated uneducated have the same say as me as to what to do about it…

    (Sorry if I got a bit ranty… but some days these things piss you off more than others…) ;)

    • Buddy199

      The alternative media does an end run around the mainstream media pretty effectively in many cases. “All the news that’s fit to print (that supports my bias and agenda)” isn’t what it used to be. It isn’t a perfect situation but on the whole there’s a lot more context available now than there was before the internet and, say, Fox to the hysterical bewilderment of those who saw their monopoly on “their” news slip away. The GMO story will finally break into the consciousness of low-info folks when it hits home for them – suddenly food availability or prices change dramatically. Then they’ll tune in and consider GMO benefits. Until then it’s all just rheoretical to them.

      • bobito

        “Then they’ll tune in and consider GMO benefits.”

        More likely they will consider whatever solution their trusted source tells them is best. I feel that the internet can be as much of a burden as a help. With all the sources one can find many people that report for their tribe and won’t bother reading about what the other tribe thinks…

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Michael Larkin

    Keith, I’m mid-way through reading the series of articles by Nathanial
    Johnson at Grist. I must say, I’m finding it engaging and very useful in
    beginning to come to grips with the GMO issue. It’s difficult to find
    information that one feels is even-handed and objective, and that also
    introduces one to the elements of the science. So: many thanks for the
    link. After I’ve finished, I’ll take a look at the Harmon article. I
    think you could usefully have some kind of permanent link the Grist
    series as a starting point for newbies.

  • Willow Silverhawk

    What I question is the origin of the blight that it’s threatening the citrus trees. It just so happened that the blight thathit was the one that gmo had the answer to? How convenient is that?

    • theLaplaceDemon

      Evidence, please.

    • Tom

      Also, all bacterial infections throughout human history were probably the work of Big Antibiotic. How nefarious!

      Citrus greening first described in 1929 btw (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huanglongbing ).

    • bobito

      It came from Mother Nature’s GMO laborartory.

    • mem_somerville

      We were joking the other day about how to blame the chestnut blight on monoculture. But sometimes there’s just a new pathogen introduced for which there is no resistance. No amount of organic practices or polyculture or biodynamic fairies could help.

      But in the case of California, it seems the first case was–wait for it–a backyard gardener and some nice church folks.

      A graft of pomelo — a symbol of good fortune and prosperity in many Asian cultures — was the likely source of the state’s first documented case of huanglongbing, a citrus disease with no known cure, say researchers involved in the investigation. The suspected plant shoot, orbudwood, was passed freely among San Gabriel Valley church friends who loved to garden and experiment with hybridization, according to residents.

      http://articles.latimes.com/2012/apr/14/local/la-me-citrus-disease-20120414

      But your conspiracy leap is funny too.

  • JonFrum

    If you took ten anti-Semitic screeds from 1930s Germany and ten anti-GMO screeds from the present, and swapped ‘the Jews’ for ‘Monsanto,’ I guarantee you couldn’t tell the difference. The motivation is the same – the desire to find someone to blame for something.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Michael Larkin

      Good point. You could do the same with screeds about climate deniers.

  • JD

    Even as I have a severe allergy to GMO corn I read this article in its fullest hoping to gain some knowledge from it. After doing so I have to say that this article and the New York Times one both hinge very heavily on being a propaganda tool for corporatism. I understand that the media needs to pay the bills so they don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them as in with the advertisers. However as a longtime subscriber of Discover Magazine I on the other hand will think twice before renewing my subscription later this year. ;)

    • bobito

      Keith, do you keep track of how many times you are called a corporate shill? Perhaps create a collage of corporate servitude to display on you wall? ;)

      I believe you have become “The Man” who is keeping us down!

    • FosterBoondoggle

      Right. Because god forbid you should read anything that challenges your beliefs. Incidentally. how do you know that it is GMO corn that you’re allergic to? What’s the allergen? Since Bt is broken down in the human stomach and glyphosate resistance changes an enzyme that’s located in chloroplasts (found in the leaves but not in grain kernels), by what magical process does your body detect the genetic difference of the corn you believe you’re allergic to?

  • FosterBoondoggle
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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and 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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