On Framing, Storylines and Science Journalism

Last night, I attended an interesting panel discussion at NYU’s Journalism Institute.

I’ve attended a number of similar events hosted over the years by NYU’s SHERP program and they have always been high-level, engaging conversations on the various complex and often thorny issues covered by science and environmental journalists. Last night’s event featured Sharon Lerner, who is on what I would call the toxics beat (for The Intercept). She reports on the environmental and health impacts of industrial chemicals. A big part of this beat is the complicated interrelationship between risk, uncertainty, and industry’s (frequently hidden, influential) role in the government regulation and oversight of toxic chemicals.

I know this beat pretty well, particularly from my years at Audubon magazine, when I was writing (and editing) stories about the impact of polluting industries on wildlife. And I’ve also uncovered industry and federal agency malfeasance while writing about oil & gas drilling impacts to archaeology.

Everything discussed at the panel rang true to me, such as this:

At one point in the conversation, Lerner referenced a feature story about Monsanto just published by The Nation. Before going any further, let me say this piece was written by Rene Ebersole, a former colleague of mine at Audubon magazine. Ebersole is a journalist I highly regard; she has also visited my journalism classes over the years.

Her Nation piece is titled, “Did Monsanto Ignore Evidence Linking its Weed Killer to Cancer?” The subhead reads: “This could be the company’s ‘Big Tobacco’ moment.”

I’m not going to pass judgment on the story because I haven’t gotten into the weeds (pardon the pun) of the whole glyphosate controversy. (Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s mega-selling Roundup herbicide product.) At some point, I’d like to delve into the mass of conflicting information, but it’s going to require an awful lot of time, because, well:

There’s also evidence recently reported by Mother Jones and Reuters that suggests the glyphosate = cancer narrative may be incomplete. Additionally, this extensive piece just published by a professor of risk perception, who, on his website, raises what seems to be legitimate ethical questions about the lead scientist at the center of the anti-glyphosate campaign and the litigation that has sprung from it.

But the professor’s acerbic tone and obvious point of view gives me pause. A sarcastic or hyperbolic style isn’t the only possible indicator of bias (be it by a blogger or a journalist) but when you see it, you should approach with caution.

Which brings me back to Ebersole’s piece on Monsanto. I should note that it is written in a neutral tone. But does this mean her story is without a slant? Go back to the headline and subhead and you tell me. I’m not suggesting her story isn’t true; what I suspect is that it may not be the full story.

Every feature story is supposed to have a theme to help frame the reporting. But this often can be problematic, as one writer for NPR noted several weeks ago:

The Monsanto-glyphosate controversy playing out in the media, with all its various storylines, is perhaps another example of selective framing. Did Monsanto manipulate the science and the regulatory process on glyphosate? It sure seems that way, based on Ebersole’s story, and previous reporting by Lerner. At the same time, did a prestigious international health agency manipulate the review process in a way that made it possible for glyphosate to be classified as carcinogenic? It sure seems that way, based on a Reuters investigative report. And is the lead scientist responsible for that agency classification now profiting off it? It sure seems that way, based on depositions in class action lawsuits filed against Monsanto after glyphosate was designated a carcinogenic:

I suspect that all these storylines have truth in them. Which particular storyline reporters and readers gravitate to is a separate issue little discussed, but perhaps well worth taking up one day on a science journalism panel.


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