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30Jul 2013

Something is missing in Amy Harmon's story on genetically engineered oranges

Paul Raeburn
Something is missing in Amy Harmon's story on genetically engineered oranges

[See Charlie Petit's post  for another take on this story.]

A lot of people like the New York Times science writer Amy Harmon, and a lot of people like her 5,000-word Sunday story, "A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA." I agree that there is much to admire here, but because of odd choices by Harmon and her editor, some important things are missing.

First, the praise. "There is so much to admire about this New York Times story by Amy Harmon that I don't know where to begin," writes Keith Kloor at his Discover blog, Collide-a-Scape. He calls the story "an engrossing, meticulously reported piece on a really complex subject," with "a pitch-perfect narrative that avoids all the land mines of an emotionally and ideologically charged issue." He then tracks the praise from others on Twitter, including Dennis Dimick (@ddimick) the executive environment editor of National Geographic, who calls the story a "must read." Kloor links to Maggie Koerth-Baker at Boing Boing, who writes that Harmon "delves into the nuance behind the often very un-nuanced public debate about genetically modified foods." Andrew Revkin, quotes this line from Harmon's story at his Dot Earth blog: "It's not where a gene comes from that matters," one researcher said. "It's what it does." He goes on to say that "this is one of a hundred valuable lines in Amy Harmon's prize-worthy feature exploring a Florida orange grower's quest for a gene that can save the citrus industry from a global bacterial threat."

Revkin's comment gives me the perfect opportunity to insert myself into the discussion. He's right; that is a good line. But who said it?

I'll have more to say about that in a minute, but before I get to that, here's what I like about Harmon's story: It's very nicely written, nicely organized, and it spins a wonderful narrative. As is often the case with fiction and only rarely the case with journalism, we read on because we want to know what happens next in Ricke Kress's battle to save oranges from the disease known as citrus greening.

The problem with the story is that we see far too much through Kress's eyes. Only a handful of others are quoted, and then only briefly. (I counted six others, but I could have missed one or two.) Many quotes, such as the one Revkin likes, are given to us anonymously. I don't understand why Harmon didn't identify these folks. Consider this exchange;

 “The public will never drink G.M.O. orange juice,” one grower said at a contentious 2008 meeting. “It’s a waste of our money.”

“The public is already eating tons of G.M.O.’s,” countered Peter McClure, a big grower.

“This isn’t like a bag of Doritos,” snapped another. “We’re talking about a raw product, the essence of orange.”

It would have been nice to know who these people are, and to hear a bit more--a good bit more--about why they feel the way they do. This happens again and again. "Mr. Kress’s boss worried about damaging the image of juice long promoted as '100 percent natural,'” she writes, and "'The consumer will support us if it’s the only way,' Mr. Kress assured his boss." Who is his boss? And again, "'People are either going to drink transgenic orange juice or they’re going to drink apple juice,' one University of Florida scientist told Mr. Kress. Who? And when Harmon does quote people by name, she often does so in brief fragments. For example, she quotes one scientist, William O. Dawson of the University of Florida, who is working on the citrus greening problem. The entire quote from Dawson: "preferably with a little vodka in it." (He's talking about how he likes grapefruit juice.) We learn of several scientists who are working on this problem, but we get few details about what they are doing.

The only thing I can think of to explain this frequent use of anonymous quotes is that Harmon and her editor wanted to keep the light on Kress, putting others into soft focus in the background. But why so far in the background? Further, there are any number of people and groups that are involved in this story whom Harmon didn't speak to--or didn't include in her copy. Where are the contributions to this tale from the critics, the EPA, the Agriculture Department, other growers, and consumer groups? Monsanto is repeatedly mentioned in critical contexts in this story. Where is its opportunity to respond?

Harmon gives us a detailed report on Kress's views, but she paraphrases the critics. "Critics of the technology say it represents a new and potentially more hazardous degree of tinkering whose risks are not yet fully understood," she writes, and "Critics worry that such crops carry risks not yet detected, and distrust the big agrochemical companies that have produced the few in wide use." As Koerth-Baker writes, we get a nuanced view--but only of Kress; not of those who disagree.

Any nuanced discussion of Harmon's story on Twitter was foreclosed Sunday when the food writer Michael Pollan issued this shot before disappearing into the crowd:

Science writers rallied to Harmon's defense and demanded that Pollan tell us what industry talking points he was talking about. He hasn't responded. For the record, there is no evidence in Harmon's story that she parroted industry talking points. End of discussion.

The science writer and blogger Maryn McKenna engaged Harmon in a Twitter discussion in which McKenna suggested that the story should have had more links, and Harmon said she worried that too many links would distract the reader. They are both right; it could have used more links, but not too many more.

Harmon's piece is unlike anything else I've read on genetically engineered foods, and it does advance the argument, by showing that, in this case, refusing to adopt genetically engineered orange trees might mean wiping out the nation's citrus crop. Choices have consequences. My aim here is not to wade through the arguments for and against the genetic engineering of food, but to get into the journalism, into the guts of the story, to see how Harmon did it--and what she might have done differently.

-Paul Raeburn


I take your point on Monsanto--that it's a totem in this debate. Still, if Monsanto complained that it had been badly used here, I don't think the Times would have much defense. A simple "Monsanto declined to comment," which is probably what it would have done, would not have interrupted the narrative.

With regard to Monsanto and the many anonymous quotes, I'd say that the decision to include other characters and points of view should be based on what is important to readers--not what is important for the narrative. I had good things to say about this story in my post, but I think it tipped a little too far toward favoring the narrative.

Paul - Good points on unattributed quotes, which I did not even notice while reading the story. Most of them however are atmosphere quotes, not substantivel analytical ones, so that may be why they didn't jump out for me. Few of them prompt me to wish I could ask their sources for more. She made a strategic decision to focus on one guy's battle to save his industry. It worked well enough and moved the ball forward on larger issues of genetic engineering with a vigor that few, fully annotated, link-filled, and quote-attributed yarns have done.

I disagree however on one small point: that she should have let her readers hear from Monsanto. It is very difficult to say anything about anything GMO without somebody lighting into Monsanto, which was her point. Monsanto, as a code word more than the company itself, has become an incantation, punching bag, example, and expletive to many who fear widespread development of GMO foods or other products. What can a company exec or p.r. person possibly say to illuminate that while sticking to the topic: Florida oranges? It would be tedious, and tangential.  Harmon went out of her way to say that Monsanto Corp. is not a player in the citrus greening drama, but its name is thrown around anyway.

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