Why does mainstream media refuse to cover the genetically modified organism (GMO) issue in a balanced way? Last Wednesday, at the Whistleblower Summit for Civil and Human Rights, a panel of two journalists, an author, and a scientist spoke to a packed room about the media’s biased coverage of GMOs.
“Scientists and other scholars are having a lively debate about GMOs within their communities, including critiques, but the media rarely reports on this,” said Dr. Doug Gurian-Sherman, a former GM wheat and rice researcher, who is now the Senior Scientist at the Center for Food Safety. The voices of these experts are rarely heard because journalists, who are frequently inexperienced with complex GMO science, predominantly go to industry-funded or other pro-GMO scientists as sources. Scientists who have some concerns about GMOs are often too afraid to speak out, making it even more difficult for journalists to represent the issue in a balanced way.
Panelists explained that scientists fear being labeled as anti-GMO activists and their careers could be damaged. Steven Druker, public interest attorney and author of Altered Genes, Twisted Truth, stated, “I think that it is a shame that many scientists who do have concerns [about GMOs] don’t have the courage right now to speak out about their convictions because they’ve seen how other scientists have been pilloried.”
The same applies to journalists. According to reporter Michael Snow, “Unwittingly some prominent news outlets have been caught spreading misinformation and half truths about GMOs, sometimes in concert with industry funded ‘astroturf’ front groups that pretend to be consumer oriented.” However, when experienced journalists get credible information from non-industry scientists, these media outlets often appear reluctant to publish it. Snow waited 13 months for the Washington Post to print his assigned and accepted op-ed on the myths and truths of GMOs in its Sunday Outlook Section, only to have a new editor quietly kill the piece. He also recalled the 1997 case of two investigative journalists who were fired from a Fox Television affiliate after Monsanto threatened to sue the station. The journalists were ready to publish an exposé about the dangers of rBGH, a genetically engineered hormone manufactured to increase cows’ milk production.
Mainstream media is not covering the full range of the scientific debate around GMOs, in part because scientists are afraid to come forward and journalists are not supported by their employers. As a result, the presentation of the public GMO debate is lopsided. Dr. Gurian-Sherman explained: “The GMO debate is framed as scientific consensus versus an uninformed public, but scientists are not in agreement about many aspects of the technology and how it is being developed.” We need scientists to come forward and provide information that will create a more balanced public debate that can lead to more informed legislative decisions.
Roxanne Darrow is Investigation and Outreach Coordinator for the Food Integrity Campaign.