On Journalism, GMOs, and Bias

At their annual conference earlier this month, the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) held a panel called, “What’s in your email, Doc?” From the blurb:

Scientists working or speaking out on hot-button topics like climate change and GMO foods are being peppered with open-records requests to see their data and emails. Is this a legitimate way to smoke out misconduct and undisclosed ties to special interests? Or is it harassment intended to stifle inconvenient research?

I didn’t attend the conference, but I recently listened to the panel discussion posted on the SEJ website. The diverse perspectives highlighted the uses and in some cases misuses of Freedom of Information Requests. (For more on misuses, see this report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.) The SEJ panel was prompted by media stories of open records requests being made of public university researchers by an anti-GMO group.

I reported that first story last February, then followed up with a second piece several months later after I learned that the activist group had targeted more than 40 academics and that some of the requests were starting to yield returns.  These were straightforward news articles, published in Science and Nature, respectively. I mention that because SEJ, in its lengthy and helpful write-up of this escalating GMO/FOIA story, cites those two articles, while also adding:

Kloor had been outspoken elsewhere about the weakness of scientific evidence that GMO foods might be unhealthful to eat. He had called those in the pro-labeling movement concerned about health effects “the climate skeptics of the left.” Kloor’s writing had included criticism of how journalists covered the GMO debate.

That passage struck me as odd and not entirely accurate. True, I had referred to the scientific consensus on GMO safety concerns numerous times at my blog, previously hosted at Discover magazine. But I’ve also done this with respect to climate change and vaccines. I don’t recall anyone saying I have been “outspoken” about the scientific evidence pertaining to the reality of climate change or the safety of vaccines.

Yes, a 2012 essay I wrote for Slate was headlined “GMO opponents are the climate skeptics of the left,” but I didn’t make this analogy because GMO opponents were concerned about the health effects of GMOs. It was because, as I put it in the piece, anti-GMO campaigners who were progressive public interest watchdogs and green NGO’s had “distorted the science on genetically modified foods” in the same way that fire-breathing climate “skeptics” had distorted climate science. (By the way, here’s a recent in-depth, widely praised Slate piece by Will Saletan, who wrote that, “the deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies.”)

That my writing has included criticism of the media for how it has covered GMOs is absolutely true. So no argument on that statement in the SEJ write-up.

But here’s what puzzles me: Why would informed, evidence-based analysis and commentary on GMO-related issues published at my blog and elsewhere be relevant to my reporting on GMOs? Can a journalist report fairly and accurately on subjects such as evolution, climate change, and public health while also dissecting how these subjects are covered in the media? Can a journalist be a critic and reporter–at the same time? If I unpack a popular GMO myth in a 3,500 word article, chronicling how the media and thought leaders helped perpetuate it, how is that any different from another journalist unpacking the media’s role in perpetuating unwarranted vaccine fears?

If I critically examine how prominent voices have warped public atttitudes on GMO’s, does that make me unqualified to report objectively on the subject? Before you answer that, have a look at what science journalist Jeffrey Kluger has written on vaccines for Time magazine. You’ll notice lots of both sharply-worded commentary on the anti-vaccine movement and well-reported, magazine-style pieces on vaccine-related issues. Does the former influence how you regard the latter? I doubt it.

So is there something about writing about GMOs that makes it a different kettle of fish than writing about climate change or vaccines?

Last year, Adam Frank penned a short incisive post at NPR called, “GMO’s and the Dilemma of Bias.” He observed that,

one of the most pressing issues we face is how to evaluate research when its conclusions challenge our world-views. This is certainly the issue with climate change, where Al Gore’s championing the case for climate action galvanized many against it. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) — i.e., genetic engineering of crops — presents its own version of the problem for the environmentally minded. For those with a “green” disposition, the reaction to GMOs tends to one of opposition: GMOs are not safe and should be banned.

But what happens if a careful analysis of the current state of the science points in the opposite direction?

Frank is referring to Nathanael Johnson’s impressive deep dive into the state of the science on GMOs. It was exhaustively researched, touching on many complex facets, including claims suggested in some studies that GMOs are harmful. Johnson addressed this head on:

A couple of those [studies] do exist. It’s important to look at them carefully, with an open mind. It’s also important to do the same with the hundreds of studies suggesting that GMOs aren’t harmful. When you consider the evidence in sum, the products out there look pretty darn safe.

Johnson’s rigorous and nuanced examination of all the issues that roil the GMO debate was a masterful feat. It also made me wonder what prompted it and why it wasn’t done sooner by another journalist. I had the same thought after reading Saletan’s piece that shined a light on the tactics and rhetoric of GMO opponents.

I believe that an explanation for this comes by way of the American Press Institute, which, in a larger discussion on the many forms of bias in journalism, notes:

There is a bias built into the way journalists pick and cover stories. Certain subjects are routinely covered or ignored.

Assuming this is true for GMOs, how would journalistic biases influence coverage? I think it has to do with certain assumptions some have about NGO’s, which upon closer examination, may turn out to be wrong. That is the implicit takeaway from Johnson’s Grist series and Saletan’s Slate investigation.

Lest you get the impression that I’m suggesting only one lens to view the GMO sphere, let me declare: This sphere has a poorly understood socio-cultural component and is dominated by multinational agricultural corporations, two important factors that are interrelated and deserving of close scrutiny.

What I am suggesting is that a particular bias has skewed media coverage of GMOs in one direction–until recent years. Some might consider this is a biased claim. You be the judge.

NOTE: This is the second in a series of posts on GMOs and journalism.

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