Frankenjournalism at MSNBC

By Keith Kloor | March 21, 2015 7:15 am

Two years ago, a bill to label foods that contained genetically engineered ingredients was introduced into Congress by a Democratic representative from Oregon and a Democratic senator from California. It didn’t go anywhere, and we haven’t heard much about it, though since then proposed mandatory GMO labeling laws in some states have been in the news. As Nathanael Johnson wrote in Grist last year, these initiatives draw media interest, which often helps to educate consumers that are mostly clueless about GMOs:

When veteran health and environmental reporters dig into the GMO debate, they start showing people what all the most trustworthy scientific and medical institutions have found: This technology is no riskier than other cherished new technologies we constantly introduce into our lives.

Such responsible journalism was nowhere to be seen in a seven minute MSNBC segment that aired last month:

I didn’t see the piece until this weekend, when someone on my Twitter feed mentioned it. Everything about it, starting with the “Frankenfood” graphics, is editorially slanted. The piece leads off with the news hook–a GMO labeling bill being reintroduced in Congress by Democrats. Then it displays the results of a recent AP poll that found a large majority of Americans were in favor of GMO labeling.

However, as this research has suggested, and as Chris Mooney has pointed out at the Washington Post’s Wonkblog,

when people tell pollsters they favor GMO labeling, they don’t really know what they’re saying. Because overall public knowledge about GMOs is very low, many GMO polls give “a measure of what people will say they want to label when they have no idea what that means,” explains Yale public opinion researcher Dan Kahan.

The MSNBC piece turned to two GMO labeling proponents–a popular chef and an Oregon Democratic congressman–to explain why GMO foods should be labeled. The MSNBC host of this segment came off as a vapid facilitator; he served up softball questions to his guests that reinforced the “frankenfood” theme. He also implicitly framed the GMO labeling push as a Democratic issue.

Americans, it should be noted, are not polarized on the GMO issue.

Yet.

And despite the best efforts of activists to inflame the GMO discourse with skull and crossbones rhetoric. The frankenjournalism recently shown at MSNBC was essentially an infomercial for anti-GMO campaigners. As such, it was a disservice to its viewers and the public discourse on 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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