Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Facts vs understanding in GMO propaganda wars

When is reporting the facts a hindrance to broad understanding and informed, participatory democracy? That's actually not a hard question to answer. A common circumstance in which facts fail to enable understanding is when they lack (or obscure) context.

Eric Lipton reported on 5 Sept 2015 for the NY Times, in an article titled Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show, that:
Corporations have poured money into universities to fund research for decades, but now, the debate over bioengineered foods has escalated into a billion-dollar food industry war. Companies like Monsanto are squaring off against major organic firms like Stonyfield Farm, the yogurt company, and both sides have aggressively recruited academic researchers, emails obtained through open records laws show.

The emails provide a rare view into the strategy and tactics of a lobbying campaign that has transformed ivory tower elites into powerful players. The use by both sides of third-party scientists, and their supposedly unbiased research, helps explain why the American public is often confused as it processes the conflicting information.
The article goes on to describe Monsanto's "longstanding partnership with academics, including "Kevin Folta, the chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida"; and research funding provided by Organic Valley, Whole Foods, Stonyfield, and United Natural Foods Inc. to "Charles M. Benbrook, who until recently held a post at Washington State University."

There's fodder for critique in what these two rather different examplars (dept. chair vs. staff researcher) of industry-funded lobbying imply about the weight of (i.e., the investment in) pro- and con- arguments being funded by GMO-producers vs. organic food producers. "False balance" is a thing in journalism, and I'd say that Lipton's article and its attention-grabbing headline are smothered in it.

The author describes two avenues of influence on public discussion and regulation of GMOs, and in early paragraphs of his article (quoted above) implies that they have equivalent effect. This rhetorical device casts an illusion of evenhanded objectivity, even though the evidence published in the article's sidebars skews in prevalence and impact to show that biotech recruits and deploys academics to shill for its industry with a far heavier hand. The article itself states, albeit 85% of the way through its ~2600 words:
[...] the opponents of genetically modified foods have used their own creative tactics, although their spending on lobbying and public relations amounts to a tiny fraction of that of biosciences companies.
(Bold emphasis added.)

But I'm not going to dwell on that oft-criticized aspect of journalistic sleight-of-hand. I'd rather take a step back and look at what's being argued.

Without prejudice as to their validity or centrality, here is a catalog of the concrete concerns about genetic engineering in agriculture that this weekend's NY Times article references, mostly superficially (italicized text is quoted):
  • the safety of their [Monsanto's] products [genetically modified seeds, as well as pesticides and herbicides]
  • whether herbicide use has surged [in concert with increased planting GMO crops], and that some of these herbicides may be unsafe; or whether data relating to herbicide use on genetically engineered crops is being misinterpreted
  • whether new [genetically-engineered] crops, more resistant to pests and disease, are helping to feed the world
  • whether GMO technology helps farmers compete
  • whether the EPA should tighten the regulation of pesticides used on insect-resistant seeds
  • whether organic milk, produced without any G.M.O.-produced feed for the cows, [has] greater nutritional value
  • Do GMOs cause cancer?
The article didn't attempt to answer these questions. It's hard to object to that: the length of a newspaper article arguably doesn't permit inquiry that deep.

On the other hand, the author failed to raise deeper, well-known issues around genetically-engineered crops that any reporter worthy of an NY Times byline, anyone who did an hour's research with a search engine, could have called out. With some follow-up sleuthing, s/he could have -- as Eric Lipton failed to do in the published article -- analyzed or quoted sources commenting on more substantial and complex questions -- such as these:
  • How does GMO agriculture encourage or discourage monocropping, and what impact does that have on land productivity, herbicide use, and soil sustainability?
  • How do GMO crops influence use and costs of farming inputs (seeds, fertilizer, energy, machinery, water) and what short- and long-term effects does this have on sustainability of soil, farms, and family farming?
  • How does GMO farming affect biodiversity and the relationships of plant, insect, and animal species that influence or are influenced by the production of food for human consumption?
  • How do the economics and legal constraints of using patented seeds affect farming, farmers, and farm communities?
None of these are easy questions. None of them have simple, certain, one-sided answers. And it's not a journalist's responsibility to settle questions like these in an article reporting on how debate of contested issues is being skewed by self-interested, deep-pocketed partisans.

At the same time, none of them fits a sound-byte as closely as "Do GMOs cause cancer?"

And there's the problem: sound-bytes selected by a journalist to create an illusion of responsible inquiry, when in fact his selection dumbs down a complicated set of issue. That's the real fault of articles like the one published on Saturday. And when dumbing-down is overlaid with "false balance" illusions of objectivity, watch out! Such articles contain components of responsible argument, but they undermine responsible consideration by masquerading as standalone analyses.

Even if a single newspaper article can't tell a complex tale in toto, nothing should prevent responsible journalists and newspapers from raising relevant issues and challenges with references to earlier or companion reportage, to citation of books and films, or to other treatments of a complex issue that are necessary to the background and context of a single, more narrowly-focused piece of reporting.

Is that asking too much of print media? I don't think so. The role of the press in a democracy seemed important enough in the late eighteenth century to protect its freedom in the first amendment to the United States Constitution. That protection remains in place today. So it doesn't seem far-fetched to expect the press to meet responsibilities that merited that fundamental level of protection in the first place. Is it quaint or naive to expect the Fourth Estate to transcend mere entertainment, steer wide of obfuscation, and rise to a role of trustworthy presentation, synthesis, and critique of issues whose resolution cries out for engagement of the body politic? Not unless you're a nihilist.

Reporters like Eric Lipton and news media like the NY Times should be applauded for exposing the sordid and stifling influence of money in politics, whether funds are funneled through PACs or university campuses. But halfhearted context-setting, false equivalence, and papering over central questions by focusing on fluffier sound bytes is as much of a disservice to responsible debate as hiring academic shills.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Asking the wrong questions about GMOs for disinformation and profit
Monoculture v complexity; agribusiness and deceit
Mutant food: agribusiness vs. everybody else
Broken food chains

Thanks to dbking for his image of the facade of the Newseum in Washington, DC, posted on Flidkr and shared via Wikimedia Commons.

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