From Darwinius to GMOs: Journalists Should Not Let Themselves Be Played

By Carl Zimmer | September 21, 2012 5:17 pm

I don’t like starting the weekend in a state of infuriation, but here we are.

On Wednesday, French scientists had a press conference to announce the publication of a study that they claimed showed that genetically modified food causes massive levels of cancer in rats.

The paper appeared in a peer-reviewed journal. That being said, outside experts quickly pointed out how flimsy it was, especially in its experimental design and its statistics. Scicurious has a good roundup of the problems at Discover’s The Crux.

But those outside experts were slow to comment in part because reporters who got to see the paper in advance of the embargo had to sign a confidentiality agreement to get their hands on it. They weren’t allowed to show it to other experts.

We’ve seen this sort of bad behavior before from scientists. In 2009, paleontologists held a spectacular press conference at the American Museum of Natural History (complete with Mayor Bloomberg in attendance) to tout a primate fossil that was the centerpiece of a big cable TV show that aired that week. The paper describing the fossil was released minutes before the conference. Only one reporter managed to get her hands on the paper earlier than that, but she had to sign a confidentiality agreement with the production company.

In both cases, the strategy was clear: prevent science writers from getting informed outside opinions, so that you can bask in the badly-reported media spotlight. Sure, the real story may emerge later, but if you get that first burst of attention, you can lock in people’s first impressions. The documentary about the primate fossil got the audience its producers were hoping for. The French scientists got the attention of the French government, and thus reinforcing opposition to genetically modified foods, although the study itself fails to make that case. Mission accomplished.

This is a rancid, corrupt way to report about science. It speaks badly for the scientists involved, but we journalists have to grant that it speaks badly to our profession, too. If someone dangles a press conference in your face but won’t let you do your job properly by talking to other scientists, WALK AWAY. If someone hands you confidentiality agreements to sign, so that you will have no choice but to produce a one-sided article, WALK AWAY. Otherwise, you are being played. Saying, “Well, everyone else is doing it” is no excuse. You do remember your mother asking what you’d do if everyone else jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, right?

Science writing has been marred in recent weeks by plagiarists and fabulists. We need to live up to our principles, and we need to do a better job of calling out bad behavior. BBC, AFP, and Reuters: you all agreed to do bad journalism, just to get your hands on a paper. For shame.

UPDATE 9/22 1:22 pm ET: Jonathan Amos, the author of the BBC’s article, just left a comment pointing out that he did not, in fact, sign a confidentiality agreement. On Twitter, he added that the BBC was offered the paper the day before the press conference in exchange for signing the agreement and declined. To which I can only say, Good on you, and please accept my apologies. But I am left wondering why the article itself describes the confidentiality agreement that journalists had to sign, and then does not explain what Amos just explained. (Also, I am curious who else signed the confidentiality agreement. Any French journalists have some insight?)

UPDATE 2 9/22 5:13 pm ET: In the commoents, Pascale Lepointe links to an article in Le Monde, which states flat out that they agreed to keep the paper confidential. Classy.

UPDATE 3 9/25 Zen Faulkes, among others, points out that the lead scientist on the paper also has a book coming out this week on GMOs. And there’s a TV documentary that’s been in the works for a while that’s about to air. Science as marketing!

 

 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Darwinius, Meta

Comments (38)

  1. Brian Too

    But, but, but, they HAD to take the confidentiality deal, you see. To stay COMPETITIVE.

    One of the many lame justifications used these days as an excuse. Science, finance, politics, and so forth.

    It’s sad really. We substitute any sense of ethics and responsibility and try to externalize what cannot be externalized.

  2. MAUCH

    Let’s hope that all the big sites throughout the blogesphere link to this post. Science and science journalists just can not claim the intellectual high ground while at the same time buying and selling bad junk on the science black market.

  3. Tapani L.

    Doesn’t this sort of activity breach ethics guidelines of affiliated scientific organizations and journals? They DO have some kind of guidelines, right? Doing terrible science is one thing, but this is something else entirely.

    I can hardly believe that this sort of ‘rigging the publicity’ game is generally allowed in professional scientific circles without repercussions.

    I’m not so surprised about journalists going along with the ride, though.

  4. “Scicurious has a good roundup of the problems at Discover’s The Crux.”

    Well done, nice pun :P

  5. Everyone is jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge? I am so there.

  6. WALK AWAY. Excellent advice. And if a science writer has trouble following it, they might want to note that, as in your examples, restrictions like that make it very likely that the story has a serious problem.

  7. Carl. You can make any comment you like about the quality of my journalism but please do not report something I did not do – I did not sign the non-disclosure agreement. I never would entertain such nonsense. The first sight I had of the paper was when everyone saw it – after it had been published by the journal. If you contacted me to ask what happened, I would have been more than happy to explain this to you. I would appreciate it now if you would correct the copy above, making it clear that neither I, nor anyone else in the BBC, signed an NDA. Thank you. Jonathan.

  8. I wholeheartedly agree with this. Walk away… or make the story: “Scientists attempt to muzzle press over weak GMO study” That, surely, is a much bigger, better and accurate story than what actually emerged.

  9. Mr. Amos- As someone who noticed these notes in only a few stories, I’m *VERY* glad you didn’t sign it (how many stories came out didn’t note it?) I thought the BBC’s article was actually pretty good reporting on a story that was all too easy to just make into a one-sided fearful one (even without the embargo NDAs notwithstanding). So thank you for writing a good story.

    However, Carl’s update echoes my thoughts: it wasn’t at all clear to me if the BBC had or hadn’t agreed to it at some point. I know stories get updated over time and there’s generally only a public record of the time of the most recent one (“last update ” and there’s certainly no explicit indication of what was added or removed). Since the paragraph about the NDA doesn’t say clearly say whether the BBC did or not, you can’t help but wonder if an earlier version of the story lacked those skeptical quotes from independent scientists. It sounds like it wasn’t the case here — good! But given the problems with such an NDA, news organizations shouldn’t leave a reader guessing.

  10. The daily Le Monde mentioned in its September 19th article (http://www.lemonde.fr/planete/article/2012/09/19/un-ogm-de-monsanto-soupconne-de-toxicite_1762236_3244.html) that he “had to signed” the confidentiality agreement. 8th paragraph.

  11. Also, the weekly newsmagazine Nouvel Observateur had probably such an agreement, since he announced its cover page of the September 19th edition, before the study was published. (http://tempsreel.nouvelobs.com/ogm-le-scandale/20120918.OBS2686/exclusif-oui-les-ogm-sont-des-poisons.html)

  12. Michael LeJeune

    I see how multidirectional the information flowed. Would like to point at litigators but that’s for another time and place. How about the study itself?. Is there anything troubling avbout the data? It would make sense that incomplete amino acids or modified amino acids could be related to health problems. Do you sense that this should be moved to a higher level of scrutiny? I am sure large companies like Monsanto, Dupont or Pfizer would like to tamp this down. Please sift through this data and let the public know whether there should be a call to action?
    Thank you.

  13. Worst. I’ve just learned (I’m in Quebec, so I don’t really read the France’s cultural newspapers) that a television team (not journalist, more like documentary) followed the Seralini team during the last two years. This report will be broadcast on October 16th, on the national TV network France 5. And yet, this work has been described by the popular press, last Wednesday, as “extremely secretive” with “encrypted email” and so on. http://television.telerama.fr/television/ogm-deux-extraits-exclusifs-du-documentaire-sur-l-etude-polemique,86967.php

  14. Random Rambler

    This “documentary” recently put up on youtube has been floating around recently.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Njd0RugGjAg

  15. To be fair with Le Monde, while they stated flat out that they had to sign this agreement, at least they informed their readers on that. The author of the article, Stéphane Foucart, twitted his doubts about that study and posted links, again on twitter, about other long-term studies (look for @sfoucart tweets). A French weekly magazine, the one with which Séralini had an agreement, did have a shameful behaviour, though. It publishes titles like “GMOs: the scandal”, actually a feature in the online edition, which, for those who can read french, is here: http://tempsreel.nouvelobs.com/ogm-le-scandale/

    The bulk of the articles is quite one-sided. The Rue89 website, which belongs to the Nouvel Observateur, is even worse, with a journalist openly taking side in the argument: http://www.rue89.com/rue89-planete/2012/09/21/tumeurs-sur-des-rats-les-reponses-vos-questions-sur-les-ogm-235507 (again, for those reading french).

  16. Bob

    The whole concept is at best absurd. I don’t see how what kind of reporters are involved matters, if they agree to not report they are not reporters. I can see some very rare exceptions but that’s about it.

    It always bugs me that these sorts of things are obvious to those of us with little education but obscured or complicated to people with extensive educations.

  17. anna meldolesi

    Carl, I’m a science journalist covering the Seralini affair. Can you help me to contact Jonathan Amos? He regrets you didn’t contact him to ask what happened, therefore I did it by email, but got an authomatic message saying he cannot read every single piece of correspondence he receives :-) Thank you for all your great work. Anna

    [CZ: You could try Twitter: https://twitter.com/BBCAmos ]

  18. AJP

    The scandal here is there have been no long term studies of the effects of GM corn before the USDA and FDA allowed this into the environment but that’s just fine with corporate sponsored blogs whoring themselves out to all and sundry I guess. The insidious response on blogs of this ilk is just par for the course. You only have to look at the response to Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Institute in Scotland, who was sacked after his research suggested GM potatoes damaged the stomach lining and immune system of rats, and David Quist and Ignacio Chapela, who studied the flow of genes from illegally planted GM maize to Mexican wild maize, to realise the risk scientists face when threatening the sacred cow of GMO. I am curious what GMO supporters get out of this. You’re in all likelihood eating this stuff as restaurants across the country use cooking oil from GMO maize. Do science writers seriously think they will obtain some magic immunity from the deleterious effects of this frankenstein food. What is up with you people?

    [CZ: Call me crazy, but I just expect scientific papers to actually contain the statistical analysis required to back up their conclusions. And if this paper was so ironclad, I can't see why the scientists would hide it from other scientists. There's nothing insidious here: I hope I'm being as plain as can be. As for accusations of whoring, etc., I won't even dignify them with a response.]

  19. AJP

    So you have no opinion on the lack of long term studies. Probably the most contentious scientific introduction in the history of mankind yet there is no data available to prove that GMO is safe. I find that deeply troubling. The thought that a company like Monsanto with it’s disgusting history behind it, is given free rein to do whatever it likes without any oversight whatsoever, is something that frankly horrifies the general population. P.S I have no information on you or your blog. I am however very aware that corporate sponsorship of supposedly independent researchers and blogs is rife.

  20. pg

    So the story is that someone insulted you?

  21. John Fryer

    The Seralini paper is freely available for us to read but there are no links given here for us to make up our own minds.

    I understand it agrees 100 per cent with all industry studies.

    The difference is it continues longer than industry studies and this is where for example we see damage to the KIDNEYS.

    This could lead to high sugar which in turn damges the kidneys in a repeating vicious circle.

    How many people in GMO countries have pre-clinical signs of diabetes?

    And how many in those countries free of GMO’s

    We havent got multimillion euro/pound/dollar laboratories like Professor Seralini but we can react to the GMO food we have been eating for now 30 to 40 years.

    I understand OBESITY is a problem when KIDNEY damage occurs.

    What is the OBESITY problem in GMO countries compared to non-GMO countries?

    Its a bit like a LYNCHING.

    How can we in an hour or so tear apart work of 5 or more years.

    And where is the PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE.

    What will it cost to HALT this food and wait for industry to do longer studies than ONE DAY tests on less animals than here.

  22. Ric Fennessy

    AJP and John Fryer give us some intelligent discussion here, thank god. So I ask you Carl Zimmer, can you please provide us the links to earlier articles of yours regarding the research of Arpad Pusztaia, Hussein Kaoud (2012), and David Quist and Ignacio Chapela? And can you point us to any of the multitudes of data and research papers that scientists from Monsanto et.al. GMO producers have regarding the safety of GMO foods and I mean safety from a long-term chronic health perspective and not just the short-term?And where do you stand on the Precautionary Principle? Is it out the window with all the other principles of ESD? ESD heralded a step forward in the TRUE development of humanity and was entrenched in the Millenium Development Goals, however it seems the west is hell bent on burdening the impoverished with new diseases. Well Carl, if you can answer my questions the readers may then be able to put your article into proper perspective and determine whether or not you are being played, or indeed we are being played? Prove that you are not just another donkey journalist!!

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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