KSJ Tracker October 3, 2012

A Cautionary Note on Anti-GMO Journalism

Weeds killed by herbicide/Wikimedia Commons

I wanted to give a shout out to science journalist Keith Kloor's post today on his blog Collide-a-Scape which takes  a serious look at the subject of reporting on GM crops. Or perhaps I should call it a critical look as the post is titled, "When Bad News Stories Help Bad Science Go Viral."

I'm an admirer of Kloor's work as a science writer. He's a former editor at Audubon magazine and a freelancer for publications ranging from Science to Slate. He's also an adjunct journalism instructor at New York University. He's smart, thoughtful and thorough. And his blog, where he occasionally muses on issues in science reporting, exemplifies those same qualities as well.

This particular piece focuses on a recent study in Environmental Sciences Europe which suggests that the use of herbicide-resistant GM crops has led to an increase in the use of agricultural chemicals - rather than the predicted decrease - because it has also fostered the development of herbicide-resistant weeds.  The study was first reported by Carey Gillam at Reuters and widely circulated, as Kloor notes.

But as he also notes, the only scientist interviewed happens to be the author of the study (Monsanto was contacted and declined to comment as without seeing the data). No other researchers are cited in the piece. Further, the story fails to mention that said author, Charles Benbrook of Washington State University is also chief scientist for a Colorado center that promotes organic food. Or that Benbrook has been previously criticized for being biased against GM crops.

"Just so we’re clear," Kloor writes. "A story making this kind of claim should not hinge entirely on the word of the scientist whose study is being reported on. It’s not good journalism."  

I'm repeating this because, yes, I happen to agree with it. I've done a series of posts of my own here at the Tracker recently on the risks of single study reporting. And I do want to acknowledge that the news-event-single-study story is a fundamental part of what science journalists do. That I believe that we should report science as news. And I want to also acknowledge that journalists don't always have the time to put every story into its full scientific context.

But I would like single-study journalism so much better if we approached this work with a little caution, avoided writing a story that sounds like press release, did our best not to become mouthpieces for a single point of view. And in the digital age, it doesn't that long to add a little context or do enough homework to know when your own source may be talking with an agenda in mind.

That basic amount of homework would would have made this story - and by extension, its readers - a lot smarter on the subject of GM crops, not to mention on the subject of scientists at work.

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