GMOs, Journalism, and False Balance

By Keith Kloor | April 24, 2014 8:27 am

I recently gave a talk on agricultural biotechnology and the media to a graduate class taught by Calestous Juma at Harvard’s Kennedy school. I spoke about the frankenfood meme, the Monsanto effect and slanted journalism. During the Q & A, one of the students asked me when I thought misinformation on GMOs would stop appearing so regularly in the media.

I replied that GMO coverage in the media today is where climate change reporting was from the late 19980s until the early 2000s, a period when many news stories contained what is known as “false balance.” That is to say that mainstream media articles on climate science generally gave the impression that the evidence for global warming was still being debated by scientists, when it wasn’t. But many stories on climate science findings included the opinions of climate skeptics who represent a tiny minority in the field. Thus there were two sides in a given story, what later became known as “false equivalence.”

We see something similar today with stories about GMOs, which tend to have health related angles, because of the various GMO labeling initiatives proposed in numerous states. Although there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that genetically modified foods pose no harm to public health, that is not the impression you would get from the tenor of many stories, be they at some respected journalism outlets or on popular TV talk shows. Indeed, much of this coverage suggests that the safety issue is still an open question, debated hotly by scientists, when this is not true at all. For example, here is a recent example from a typical Reuters article on GMOs:

Consumer groups say labeling is needed because of questions both about the safety of GM crops for human health and the environment.

The language of the Vermont bill states that foods made with genetically engineered crops “potentially pose risks to health, safety, agriculture and the environment”, and should be labeled.

Last October, a group of 93 international scientists issued a statement saying there was a lack of empirical and scientific evidence to support what they said were false claims the biotech industry was making about a “consensus” on safety.

The group said there needed to be more independent research as studies showing safety tend to be funded and backed by the biotech industry.

But GMO crop developers such as Monsanto, and their backers say genetically modified crops, also referred to as biotech crops, have been proven to be safe.

Notice that the two opposing sides are 1) consumer groups versus 2) industry (e.g., Monsanto). And that expert opinion is represented by this group of academics and researchers, which includes known opponents of biotechnology. Additionally, many of the 93 signees have no relevant expertise. See the list and their credentials for yourself. For instance, #57 is a retired astronomer and #58 is a philosopher.

But more importantly, to present this group of dissenters as representative experts on GMOs and safety is utterly misleading. (Another similar Reuters article this week by the same authors trots out the same exact sentence on the group of 93. I’m not surprised, given one of the bylines.) Reuters could instead have cited the judgment of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, or even the European Commission, to name just a few highly respected bodies, all which have declared genetically modified foods safe to eat.

Now, it’s one thing to pass off a smattering of outliers and GMO opponents as legitimate scientific experts, it’s quite another to foist a phony expert onto an audience of millions. That’s what Dr. Oz has done twice on his popular daytime show, when he featured Jeffrey Smith as his go-to source on the supposed dangers of genetically modified foods.

It’s hard to overstate just how irresponsible this is, giving Smith that kind of high visibility platform. But Smith is milking his star status on the anti-GMO circuit for all it’s worth, now lecturing to packed houses at universities and high schools, among other venues. Thanks, Dr. Oz, for legitimizing a pseudoscience crank of the highest order!

At this point, you may be tempted to think that this sea of misinformation is being spread by fringe types who don’t have any scientific expertise (like Smith) or by journalists who have let a bias infect their reporting. That would be wrong. For here is Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist with the respected Union of Concerned Scientists, proclaiming in a recent piece in MIT’s Technology Review:

It’s also worth noting that there’s no real consensus on GMO crop safety.

Yep. You guessed it. He’s linking to that same fringy, science-denying group (on the issue of GMO safety, anyway) that Reuters keeps citing. By the way, the list of no consensus signees, of which Gurian-Sherman is #31, has since last last year ballooned to 214, as of this writing. #192 is an attorney, #197 has a PhD in math and #199 is a professor of sociology. Do you think the no consensus organizers may be trying to pad the list?

Another question: Can you imagine a science publication like Technology Review giving a platform (for “balance” purposes) to a climate skeptic, much less allowing a sentence that reads: “It’s also worth noting that there’s no real consensus on global warming.”

Of course you can’t. But the rules are different in the media when it comes to GMOs. Why is that?

UPDATE: Hot off the Vox presses, a handy-dandy GMO explainer by Brad Plumer.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate change, GMOs
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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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