The Story Behind the Story

It’s no secret how journalists find stories.

They cover a beat, talk to people (developing sources), read a lot, use social media, get tips, “collect string,” follow the news, scour public records, talk to people…you get the picture.

But how d0 journalists decide what stories to write? There is a general criteria for newsworthiness that governs daily journalism. This doesn’t mean every story deserves to be published or aired. And many of us, including myself, will occasionally gripe over a particular story, sometimes with good reason.

Still, I think that passions or bias too often blind some to the legitimate merits of a story. A good example of this is the vexed response to a recent magazine-style profile of a biotech scientist who has been at the center of a larger, controversial story the past few months. The science journalism community lauded the piece and many scientists were fine with the story. But a minority of biotech advocates–some who consider themselves science communicators–voiced their displeasure on Twitter.

Robin Bisson, who oversees a new science communication initiative on genetics and biotechnology, channeled that disapproval with his own lament here:

“Last week, BuzzFeed published a long profile of [Kevin] Folta by science journalist Brooke Borel which focused on a podcast called The Vern Blazek Power Hour. Folta was revealed to be the lispy host who had interviewed people about biotechnology, including, rather bizarrely, himself. The article questions Folta’s judgment in hosting a podcast on a controversial topic in a manner which some might consider deceptive (it was not explicit that Folta was Blazek) and paints an embarrassing picture of a clueless scientist.”

We’ll return to that characterization in a minute. Bisson continued:

“Borel’s story is engaging, deeply researched and well written. But something about it made me feel uncomfortable. Strip way the strange details and at its heart the story is not about industry promotion, undisclosed grants or lobbying, but a researcher communicating about science being scrutinized to a degree few other researchers experience.”

In other words, the story was unwarranted, Bisson suggests. He is wrong. But before I get into why, let’s back up to acknowledge that Borel was initially ambivalent about doing the story, before forging ahead. It wasn’t an easy decision.

What she’s referring to are a spate of media stories in late summer that revealed (via emails obtained through a state open records request) a closer connection between Folta and the biotech industry than he had led people to believe. This pertained not to any research, but only to his role in public forums he participated in and with messaging about the safety of GMOs.

It bears repeating that nothing in the FOIA documents impugned Folta’s own research or the mainstream science on crop biotechnology. But because Folta had promoted himself as an “independent” scientist, the nature of his heretofore undisclosed relationship with industry was highlighted in news accounts and discussed passionately on social media. One could argue about the tenor of some media reports, but there’s no doubt the attention was legitimately visited on him because he had made himself into a prominent, front-line communicator on GMOs, which is itself a fraught topic of much public interest in recent years.

Two characteristics of newsworthiness are prominence of an individual and topicality. For example, if some random, little known individual on Twitter accuses a journalist of parroting industry talking points, few people will pay attention. But when Michael Pollan, an esteemed journalist and an influential GMO critic, levels the charge at another prominent, highly respected journalist, it triggers a media firestorm.

So it is with Kevin Folta, after he becomes enveloped in a controversy involving his role in what is already a highly charged public debate on GMOs. Once this happens, all his other related activities are suddenly looked at anew and become fodder for journalistic scrutiny.

Let’s revisit what Bisson wrote:

The [BuzzFeed] article questions Folta’s judgment in hosting a podcast on a controversial topic in a manner which some might consider deceptive (it was not explicit that Folta was Blazek) and paints an embarrassing picture of a clueless scientist.

Yes, it does. And that’s why Borel’s story had to be written. The criteria for Folta’s news value had already been established with what had been revealed in news stories. Borel was reporting a new wrinkle to the story that was of human interest–another characteristic of news worthiness.  The unusual podcast became a new window to explore a developing story and to more closely examine the main figure at the center of that story.

This is how journalism works. Reporters follow the story where it leads them. Sometimes we revisit previous events when new information comes to light. And when that happens, sometimes a narrative or theme emerges. In folta’s case, it is his cluelessness. Not in a stupid way, of course, but clueless in the sense that he was evidently blind to how his actions could be perceived.

Let me elaborate on this point. When I read Borel’s story, I was struck by 1) how Folta had first reached out to interview her on his podcast in the guise of his pseudonymous character, and then, after she doesn’t respond for a while, 2) he does so again as Kevin Folta. As Borel has said, she found this odd and off-putting, then let it go. It was only after the FOIA story broke over the summer that she considered it again and felt that it was part of a continuing story of public interest.

I know that Folta feels hurt and probably betrayed by Borel’s story. I’m guessing he had approached her to do the podcast because she had done stellar, evidence-based journalism on the GMO topic, which Folta and his colleagues no doubt appreciated. I bet he even thought of her as a “friendly” journalist, someone he thought was motivated by the same thing as him: fact-based public communication on GMOs. That is where Folta and others make a wrong assumption. Borel alludes to this at one point when she is having Twitter exchanges with some of Folta’s defenders..

 Indeed, this is a deep-seated misunderstanding.

But let me stay with Folta’s case for a minute. The portrait of cluelessness that Borel paints was strikingly familiar to me. It was his apparent naiveté that led me to write my Nature story that first revealed the thrust of what was contained in the FOIA documents.

Let me explain. On July 31, I was tipped off by another scientist that a batch of Folta’s University of Florida emails had been released to an anti-GMO group in mid-June, which had requested them under a state open records law. Folta was never notified when the emails were first turned over. He had just found out himself from a third party.

This latest development in a story I had been tracking intrigued me. As a journalist who has used FOIA before, I knew I could request the same emails immediately from Folta’s university. Reporters do this all the time. But since the emails had been released more than a month ago, I figured I didn’t have time to do that. The clock was ticking. Surely the emails were already circulating to other journalists, which proved to be the case.

I also doubted that the anti-GMO group would share them with me. I assumed they pegged me as an “unfriendly.” That’s because, like Borel, much of my writing on GMOs and the issue of safety concerns has been in line with what mainstream science says, which the anti-GMO group disputes. In fact, I had to chuckle at this tweet from Borel to one of the co-founders of the anti-GMO group, who had applauded her BuzzFeed story on Folta.

Anyway, after I heard that Folta’s emails were turned over to the anti-GMO group, I immediately texted Folta to confirm if that was true. He called me the next morning, on August 1, to confirm it was. Just before that, I received a message from one of Folta’s colleagues, who forwarded to me what Folta had written to this person about the email release:

There is nothing nefarious in there that I know of.  I said [Stephanie] “Seneff was nuts”, but for the most part it is reasonably nothing. Still, lots cherry pickable.  Reimbursements for flights, etc,  funding from MON[santo] to fund a seminar/some outreach, nothing else that exciting. No personal, no research funds.  Still enough to patchwork an attack that will delight the credulous.

When I talked to Folta on the phone the day he confirmed the email release, this is the essence of what he said to me, as well. He was confident that there was nothing in the emails that would be damaging to him. I said to him that I would love to see the emails for myself, but that he couldn’t send them to me from his own account, because I had to have exactly what the anti-GMO group had in its possession. He said sure–that the whole batch was sitting on the university server and that he would give me the link to the site, where I could download all the files and view them for myself.

Well, that couldn’t happen fast enough for me. Folta gave me the link, I downloaded all the email files and I spent the entire weekend on my laptop, reading every email. As I was going through the correspondence between him and industry representative, I kept shaking my head, thinking how oblivious Folta must be to what was staring me in the face: The emails painted a picture of a scientist who relished his role as a public communicator on GMOs and who welcomed industry’s help in amplifying his message. Naturally, they were thrilled, too.

That such close coordination wouldn’t be received so innocently by others never seemed to occur to Folta.

After I finished reading the files, I spoke to Folta on Sunday night, August 2 and conveyed my own dark impressions of the emails. He was crestfallen. He didn’t see it the way I saw it, but as I went through some of them with him, the reality started to hit him.

My next decision was whether to write a quick news piece or a longer feature, because there was so much ground to cover. The editors at Nature agreed with me that getting a story out sooner was better, given that the emails has already been circulating who-knows-where for more than a month.

So I condensed the thrust of the most newsworthy emails into a 1,000 word piece that was published later that week. The editors and I agreed that a follow-up feature was more than warranted, which I started on soon after, but it fell by the wayside (as I working on it) when the New York Times published its front page story Labor Day weekend.

I had another, different kind of story I wanted to write, as well. I wanted to put what emerged from the Folta emails into a larger perspective. (I was going to draw heavily on the emails.) Here’s an excerpt of the pitch that was sent to a major outlet:

What these agriculture scientists don’t seem to grasp is the long-lasting “Merchants of Doubt” legacy, and how the “tobacco science” strategy has taught us to be wary of industry’s role in science education and messaging.  A half century ago, the lead and chemical industries were employing the same tactics as the tobacco industry to undermine public health concerns of their products. This history is ably chronicled in “Deceit and Denial,” a book published in 2003 by two science scholars.
There is much evidence today that the food and agricultural industries are using scientists again to allay concerns about their products. The great irony–at least regarding GMOs–is that the established, independent, peer reviewed science is on industry’s side. They are aligned. Indeed, there is as robust a scientific consensus on GMO safety as there is about man-made global warming.
But because Monsanto (or Monsatan, as its biggest critics refer to the company) is behind the public outreach effort, the science will be tarred by the aforementioned legacy and Monsanto’s terrible public image.

I never got to write that story, unfortunately. The pitch, which an editor sat on for nearly a month after expressing initial interest, was rejected a few days before the NYT story appeared.

Meanwhile, the GMO/Folta story has played out in ways that have no doubt harmed his career–at least temporarily. You can fault him for the poor decisions he made while also feeling bad about all the online abuse he’s endured from the screechiest anti-GMO activists. An ugly side story, known to just a handful of people, is how one individual has created about a dozen online identities to hassle him. It’s called cat-fishing. What’s really creepy about this is that the individual, using her/his own name (I won’t say which), reached out to Folta right after the first FOIA stories broke and expressed sympathy for him-even going so far as to extend an offer to help him in any way.

I know the identity of this individual–two internet sleuths figured it out and shared their proof with me. So I know who you are @franknamet (recently changed to @FranklyLabelGMO). You are one creepy person.

Where is all this heading? Well, the GMO/FOIA arms race is ratcheting up. I keep hearing from public researchers working in biotech who are receiving more freedom of information requests from activists, so I’m not surprised the other side–the GMO advocates–have decided to fight back in kind, using the same tactic.

I’m sure this new ground war between the two opposing sides will continue to yield plenty of newsworthy material for those journalists who want to follow the GMO story where it leads.

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

Via email, Robin Bisson responds:

“I certainly didn’t mean that Brooke’s story shouldn’t have been written, which I assume is what you mean by “unwarranted.” I very much recognize that it was newsworthy, and that there are major differences in values between science journalism and science communication – in this specific situation, the value I put on science communication overcomes the value I put on science journalism (and just to be clear I very much recognize the importance of critical science journalism, just look at Brian Deer and MMR – I definitely do not see science journalism merely as a vehicle for science communication!).

I don’t see it as my place to make a judgment about what should/shouldn’t be published unless there is some clear ethical line that has been crossed (not the case with Brooke’s piece), instead I wanted to express concern about potential consequences on scientists communicating.”



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