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Why the debate over genetically modified organisms and other complex science stories freak out newspapers

Jennie Addario
Spring, 2002 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

A bustling Saturday in Toronto's trendy Danforth neighbourhood. The sidewalks, shops, and cafes are crowded, as is the local Loblaws, where customers are busily-and carefully-choosing the fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, fish, and other foods they will serve up throughout the week. Nothing on this day seems unusual until, suddenly, about 50 protesters march toward the grocery store, chanting, "Hey hey, ho ho, leave our DNA alone." One demonstrator beats a drum. Others hold up homemade placards urging shoppers to "Be GMO Free" and warning them that "You're Eating Genetically Modified Organisms." Some protesters even wear costumes. One young woman sports a hand-drawn cardboard ear of corn that hangs from her neck like an oversized tie. Another is far more creative: she is dressed from top to bottom as a gigantic, plump, red tomato, complete with a large stem and leaf jutting from her head and, bursting out from her vegetable belly, a fish head with eyes, fins, and gills.

So it was no surprise that in the next day's edition of The Toronto Star a picture of the mutant tomato-fish received prominent play. In the story accompanying the photograph, the reporter, Tanya Talaga, wrote that "[the protester] said her costume represented the fact that fish genes are spliced into tomatoes to give them a longer shelf life." The impression given to the reader by this statement and the rest of Talaga's story was that all the tomatoes in grocery stores, including those at Loblaws, were swimming in fish genes. But that is simply not the case. In fact, there are no supermarket tomatoes anywhere that are packed with fish genes. Such scientific misinformation, however, is hardly limited to one newspaper on one day. It's an example of a big problem in Canadian newspapers: their general inability to cover complex science and technology stories particularly well.

The success activist groups have had in staging stunts that attract media attention but little in-depth investigation into their claims is just one reason for the poor coverage. There are several others. They include too great an emphasis on supplying pro- and anti-GM voices without any real discussion of what GM foods actually are; too much coverage of the business side of biotech; too few objective science sources willing to go on the record; too little time for journalists to understand complex issues and claims; and too few Canadian newspapers that make non-health science reporting a priority. As a consequence, readers are not getting enough information to decide for themselves whether particular scientific and technological advances are a good or bad thing. In the case of genetically modified organisms, people are not even sure any more about what is going into their daily bread-or into their side salad at dinner.

About a half-mile away from where the GMO protest was held is a quintessential Toronto cafe. Inside, sitting at a table, sipping coffee and indulging in a slice of apple strudel, is Stephen Strauss, an award-winning science writer for The Globe and Mail and author of a chapter called "Biotechnology and the Media," which appeared in the anthology, Biotechnology and the Consumer. He's wearing a black beret placed slightly to the side of his head and a medium-green turtleneck under a zipped-up black jacket.

As someone who has written about complex science and technology issues for just under two decades, he's got plenty to say. He starts by giving me his "rap" about people's fundamental beliefs in nature and how this relates to the GMO debate. There are, he explains, the "speciesists," who believe that the basic unit of nature is a species, and the "DNAists," who believe that the basic component of nature, the thing upon which everything else rests, is DNA. "The problem for journalists is when the DNAist and the speciesist talk to one another," says Strauss. They have such fundamentally different views of nature that instead of talking to one another, they often talk at one another. Both sides, Strauss explains, present arguments that seem fair to journalists but not to each other. The speciesist-often an environmentalist-sees the use of genetic modification as an injury being done to a specific species. By contrast, he says, a DNAist-likely a biotech scientist-sees the ability to move DNA from one species to another and even across kingdom lines as a manifestation of how nature works.

As Strauss speaks, I notice a crumb hanging onto the side of his lip. Instead of pointing it out to him, I start thinking about the irony of this situation. While we're discussing genetically modified foods, he's probably ingesting one. It's either soy lecithin or corn oil, or maybe even canola oil. Soy, corn, and canola, three of the most widely used of the 42 GM foods approved in Canada, are often found in processed foods like baked goods.

It is the arguments between these two groups, continues Strauss after wiping the crumb from his mouth, that make GMOs such a confusing and complicated story for journalists to cover: "Proponents talk about the glories of things to come and opponents talk about the evils of things to come. We don't have either glories or the devil at work, and we don't have anything abysmal that's taken place either." He says what we need to make it easier for journalists to cover the issue is the equivalent of what the computer industry calls the "killer app," which could, say scientists, be food as medicine. In the future, they predict, foods will be genetically engineered to contain medicinal properties. An example: tomatoes modified to produce high levels of lycopene, a naturally occurring antioxidant, which is thought to be effective in preventing prostate cancer.

"One of the ways I've cast this for journalists," continues Strauss, "is to imagine you're on the beach at Kitty Hawk when the Wright brothers fly for the first time. They fly 129 feet, or something like that. And you've got to write a story. But not just 'Wright brothers fly 129 feet.' You want to put it into context. So do you write a story about 'Wright brothers fly, soon people will fly all over the world, goods will move at the speed of sound, the sense of distance will shrink dramatically, we will have to redefine distance and emergency relief'? Or do you write a story in which you say, 'I've just seen the birth of modern warfare'? Or 'Planes at 15,000 feet dropping bombs on people'? Or 'I've just seen the ability of plagues to spread around the world'?" Looking unsure, Strauss asks, how would you write the story as a journalist if, in fact, you're not able to see how the risks and benefits work themselves out in relationship to the new technology? This, he says, is one big problem with reporting on food biotech. Without personal benefits that the average consumer can relate to, journalists tend to focus on dramatic events at which misinformed activists dress up as tomatoes.

Stuart Laidlaw, currently on the editorial board at The Toronto Star and formerly a business reporter who covered the GMO issue for nearly two years, witnessed the failure of the sides in this food fight to communicate when he showed up at a Toronto Loblaws in September 1999 to cover a joint Greenpeace and Council of Canadians press conference. Laidlaw, along with several other reporters, waited outside the grocery store. In front of them were two grocery carts filled with popular processed foods: Doritos chips, Kellogg's Cornflakes and other products from Heinz, Campbells, Nestle, Cadbury, and Kraft. The foods in the first cart, which had been purchased at Loblaws, were held up alongside foods from the second cart, which had been purchased in Europe and were said to be GM-free. The protesters proceeded to point out that Europe was far ahead of us in informing its consumers whether food was or wasn't GM-free. They also suggested that Canadians petition Loblaws to label-or ban-GM foods, and, in particular, to remove genetically engineered products from its President's Choice and No Name lines.

The activists, though, had to share the spotlight when three men-Jim Fischer, chair of a farming group called AgCare; Jeff Wilson, a Hillsborough farmer; and Doug Powell, an assistant professor of plant agriculture at the University of Guelph and co-author of the book Mad Cows and Mother's Milk-emerged from the crowd with their own props. As Laidlaw explained in his subsequent article: "The activists' first foray in that campaign brought them face-to-face with the people growing the food. Both sides brought props for the television cameras and were ready with well-rehearsed lines for the media." He wrote that Wilson, for example, brought with him a bug-infested cabbage (which, Wilson said, could have been saved with genetic engineering) and asked the group of onlookers, "Would you buy that?" Laidlaw also noted that one shopper was not impressed and ended up in a heated debate with Powell.

Laidlaw's story, like the coverage on CBC that night, introduced the major players in the food fight and acknowledged the conflict. But missing from his article was a clear explanation as to why everyone was so angry. At this point, in early 1999, the controversy surrounding GM foods had just begun to make its way to the front pages of Canada's dailies. So readers weren't yet familiar with the term genetically modified food.

It's a common problem, one not just limited to Laidlaw's piece. Newspapers often address the GMO issue without discussing the basic science behind it. As a result, readers are confused, a point proven last July when a Canadian Press wire story revealed that "a whopping 78.4 percent of respondents in a Leger Marketing poll said they didn't know what GMO stood for despite increased media coverage of the topic in the last few years."

At least Laidlaw and Kelly Crowe in her CBC report included the farmers' arguments; much of the coverage didn't refer to them at all. The Globe's article, for example, read like a Greenpeace press release, with the only counterpoint coming from "Loblaws officials" saying that "while they talked about the safety of the food [on Loblaws shelves], they did not close the door on labelling genetically modified food in the future." The Globe missed an opportunity to at least add some context since, according to Laidlaw, this was one instance where GMO supporters were proactive.

* * *

Another problem that newspapers face in covering GMOs is a structural one: which departments of the paper should deal with the topic? Answer: several, which diffuses the coverage. Often, GMOs are seen primarily as belonging in the business section. "Everything I wrote had to be in some way a business story," says the Star's Laidlaw, "because I worked in the business section. So consumer acceptance or international trade issues were a bigger story than the science." He also admits that the science of GMOs is tough to cover, one reason why he dealt with that aspect as little as possible.

According to a 2001 NewsWatch Canada study, more than 50 percent of GM stories from the National Post and the Star were published in the business section, suggesting issues surrounding GM foods were concerns primarily of investors and the business community, which of course is hardly the case. What's more, in his chapter that appeared in the anthology, Strauss looked at the biotech coverage that ran in Maclean's, the Globe, and two other papers in 1996. He noticed that the media made a distinction between biotechnology and genetic engineering. "Genetic engineering is about science; biotechnology is about business," stated Strauss. "One is experimental; the other applied." For example, looking at the Globe's coverage, he observed that two-thirds of the stories about biotechnology ran in its business section. But if the story was about genetic engineering, then it was much more likely to run elsewhere, primarily the Globe's science page.

This distinction, however, isn't an accurate depiction of either biotechnology or genetic engineering and it shows just how difficult it can be for reporters and editors to translate to readers the language of science.

Biotechnology is an umbrella term under which genetic engineering is classified. And genetic engineering is not just one form of genetic modification, it's the actual process of transferring or inserting DNA from one plant or animal into another to create a whole new organism. To make matters even more confusing to reporters, in Canada a genetically modified food isn't necessarily genetically engineered. Rather, in this country, a food is considered genetically modified if it contains a novel trait that can be developed using GE or other methods such as traditional breeding practices.

Given the dense coverage of the biotech industry in the business section of the dailies, the public often reads more about the controversies surrounding big agriculture and biotech companies than the science behind the development and research of GM foods. For the general reader, this is a barrier to understanding the issue, since how biotech business is portrayed in the media greatly affects the way people view GM technology.

In Mad Cows and Mother's Milk, Doug Powell and his co-author, William Leiss, discuss a November 1994 episode of the CBC's fifth estate that looked at rBST. Although BST, a bovine growth hormone, occurs naturally in cows, scientists in the U.S. and other countries use its recombinant, or genetically engineered, form (rBST) to increase milk production in cattle. The segment on the fifth estate, wrote Powell and Leiss, primarily focused on the corporate behaviour of Monsanto, a leading global biotechnology company, in the U.S. and Canada, and largely ignored available scientific evidence on rBST. In particular, at the end of the program, it was alleged that Monsanto had attempted to "bribe" Health Canada officials in 1990 with $1 million to $2 million in research funding in exchange for rBST approval in this country. According to the CBC transcript, fifth estate's Linden MacIntyre asked Dr. William Drennan-then a division chief in the Bureau of Veterinary Drugs, who was present when the funding offer was allegedly made-the following question: "Some people would interpret what happened there as, I hate the word, but it's hard to find another-as a bribe. A bribe offer. Is that how it struck you?"

Drennan's response: "Certainly." Although Monsanto Canada denied the allegation (and still does today), Powell and Leiss argue that the company's refusal to comment on this charge on air and its deflection of the issue to Monsanto headquarters in St. Louis damaged the perception of rBST in Canada. (The RCMP investigated the bribery claim and found no evidence to support it.) They further argue that when quoted in the press, Monsanto representatives simply regurgitated three key messages: that rBST was safe; that rBST had been reviewed and endorsed by every major medical and regulatory body; and that rBST had received more scrutiny than any other animal health product. In other words, add Powell and Leiss, Monsanto addressed scientific risk but failed to address broader consumer concerns, which contributed to the distrust of both the company and its product.

It is this kind of corporate stonewalling that frustrates many journalists. Pauline Tam, a business reporter for the Ottawa Citizen, says it was the most challenging part of covering the GM debate. She says there was no sense of engagement on the part of the biotech industry to address the legitimate concerns of advocacy groups or to get their message across to the public. "I think they felt like, 'If we convey the same messages over and over again, eventually people will understand us,'" she says. "I think that just contributed to more public distrust and more cynicism about the industry."

But Trish Jordan, manager of public and industry affairs at Monsanto Canada, argues that the industry can't win with its critics, both those in and outside the media. Jordan says Monsanto, after being criticized for conducting research without any outside input, decided to enter into collaborative relationships with university academics and the government. But, she says, Monsanto is now criticized for having private funding in public areas. "So which one is it?" she asks. "Do you want us to work with everybody, be open, transparent, consult, and enter into collaborative working relationships with people, or do you want us to go away and do whatever it is we do in a vacuum?"

It's these close working relationships between industry and government that contribute to reporters' frustrations. Where do they go for reliable information on food biotech, particularly reliable scientific information? Journalists would argue that with more and more research funding for biotechnology coming from the biotech industry, they are less confident that scientific experts can be impartial. So in the case of GM foods, finding a good science source for a story is becoming increasingly difficult. Tam, for instance, says people's backgrounds and their professional affiliations are becoming more relevant. For his part, Powell, who is both a scientist and writer, says that "If you're a scientist speaking out about genetic engineering, your credibility is immediately called into question because your funding sources are questioned. And I can tell you I get my money from industry. I also get my money from government, and I get my money from granting agencies and private foundations. Like most researchers I have a mix of funding sources. But my independence is what matters. The only currency I really have and value is credibility."

But few scientists want to join Powell in speaking to the media about GMOs. In Mad Cows and Mother's Milk, he and Leiss argue that "the outright refusal publicly to discuss rBST by many Canadian scientists-even when they were obviously...Canadian experts on the subject-also contributed to the risk information vacuum and the general perception that rBST was simply bad stuff."

But even when scientists do talk to the press, they can come away dissatisfied with the process. Consider what happened when Peter Calamai, national science reporter at The Toronto Star, was looking for a good source for an article on transgenic fish. Calamai heard about Bob Devlin, a federal fisheries scientist from West Vancouver who had been studying transgenic fish for over 10 years without any commercial funding and who, apparently, had an objective, well-informed opinion about the effect these fish had on the environment. "The reason I spent a lot of time and effort to find him was because he wasn't on one side or the other," says Calamai. "I heard about him. I phoned. He didn't phone me back. I phoned again. He didn't phone me back. I e-mailed. He didn't respond. And eventually when we talked, I found out why. It's because he's been burned. People have set him up to make him appear to be pro-industry or anti-GM-fish and he said, 'On the basis of my research, I can't answer this. I don't know yet.'"

Although it does upset Devlin when he's made to seem either pro- or anti-transgenic fish, it's not what upsets him most. "I spend all this time with journalists explaining the technology, the issues, the risks, what we know and what we don't know, to try to provide an open and objective framework for the public to decide on this very complex issue, and then they slap 'Frankenfish' on the headline" (as happened with Calamai's article, which was titled "Frankenfish Open a Can of Worries"). It may help sell newspapers, Devlin says, but the rest of the article-regardless of how the science is reported-becomes secondary to the tone set by the headline, a point also made by George Gaskell of the London School of Economics in an article carried by Reuters. Gaskell, who studied the reception of GM foods by the U.S. and European public, said coining terms like "Frankenfoods" to describe GM crops can help to frighten people.

Despite the misleading headlines, Devlin, like other scientists, says he would be more than willing to discuss his research with the media if he had more time. But spending up to two hours a day responding to media questions gets in the way of his job: "I'm trying to do science here, alone. I don't have a lot of staff and other things and it becomes an actual burden."

* * *

While working late on a Friday night in February 2001 at the Ottawa bureau of the Star, Peter Calamai received notice that an activist group had scheduled a press conference for the following Monday. It puzzled him. The group, he was informed, was planning to respond to a report about to be released by the Royal Society of Canada, the senior national body of 1,600 peer-selected Canadian scientists and scholars that promotes learning and research in science and the humanities. But Calamai hadn't received any word from the society about a release date. When he decided to call for more information, he was told that the 264-page review-produced by a panel of independent scientists commissioned by the federal government to evaluate the regulation, safety, and efficacy of GM foods in Canada-would be posted on the Internet on Sunday night at 6. That didn't leave him much time to write a story for Monday's edition. "First you've got to download it, then you've got to print it, then you've got to read it," says Calamai. "What are you looking at here, an hour and a half? It's now 7:30, closer to 8 o'clock, on a highly complicated, very carefully written, extensively footnoted report and you're on deadline, which for most Canadian newspapers is 9 o'clock."

Calamai made his deadline, but he says many papers, including the Globe, missed the story in part because, in his view, the Royal Society did a poor job of letting the media know that its report was going to be released. "Here's the most important independent advice produced on genetically modified organisms by a scientific body in this country," says Calamai, "and it was handled, in terms of letting the public know, abysmally." Although Calamai admits that scientists aren't as good at public relations as other groups, he says they are improving in terms of communicating science to journalists. Having been a science reporter in the 1970s and returning to cover the beat almost 30 years later, he's developed some perspective. "In this period, scientists have become much better communicators of what they do than journalists have become writers about it. The level of science writing and science reporting in the Canadian media is probably not as good now as it was in the 1970s. There are certainly fewer full-time people doing it. That's a fact. The figures are there."

Calamai is right about the figures. In 1998, researchers at the University of Western Ontario in London published a study looking at science writing in Canadian newspapers. One of their observations: science writers were an "endangered species." According to the study, "the overall population of science journalists working at Canadian dailies has dropped. The number of science journalists in the wire services has undergone the most dramatic decrease, dropping from four reporters in 1973 to none." Of the existing 18 full-time science reporters in the country, most focused on health issues. Indeed, according to the study, 82 percent of Canadian dailies did not assign anyone to cover non-medical science full-time, an area that concerns everything from astrophysics to earth science.

Lack of time to cover complex science and technology issues has been a common complaint among science writers. A study conducted by Orest Dubas and Lisa Martel in 1975 that looked at science communication in Canadian media found that 73 percent of Canadian science writers felt time pressure was a problem and 67 percent felt it was a serious problem, leading to inaccuracies in stories. The UWO study revealed that not much has changed in over 20 years. Researchers found that most science reporters preferred to write feature-length pieces, a form better suited to dealing with complicated issues. However, most weren't getting the time to do them since hard-news, turn-it-around-in-a-few-hours pieces had priority.

A notable exception: the editors of the Ottawa Citizen. They commissioned Pauline Tam and Tom Spears, a science reporter, to produce a series of stories that would offer an in-depth look at GM foods. The pair was given roughly two months and the first story appeared in early January 2000. The exhaustive series looked at how GM food is developed and studied in science labs, how it's processed on farms, how it's regulated by governments, and how activist groups act as watchdogs. Essentially, the pair was able to cover aspects of the debate that were absent from the daily coverage. Tam says it was a luxury not to have to file a story every day, but she still found it difficult to keep on top of the issue since developments were continually breaking. "It's really hard to get a clear focus on a moving target," she says.

To help reporters get that clear focus, UWO researchers note, a science background (either a science degree or individual academic courses) can give journalists a greater critical perspective on the job. Specialized study, researchers noted, "can teach a reporter how the science community works and how knowledge generated by the community is developed and communicated."

* * *

About 8:30 on a cold March morning of last year, Kathryn O'Hara, then a CBC reporter but now the CTV chair of science broadcasting and associate professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Stephen Strauss, Globe business reporter Leonard Zehr, Philip Fine from Times Higher Education Supplement, and three Carleton journalism students were anxiously huddled around a lab-room desk in the molecular biology and genetics department at the University of Guelph. Although they were encouraged to take notes and ask questions, this wasn't a press conference. They weren't there to grab a few quick quotes and a press release about the latest scientific discovery, only to retreat back to their desks to pound out a story that would appear the next day. Rather, they were there to do something that most journalists who cover science say they seldom get enough time for: more fully understand the science behind their own paper's headlines.

The subject that day: the enviropig that had been developed in the university's labs and had captured international headlines as one of the first biotechnology projects with an environmental outcome.

At first they listened as John Phillips, a professor of molecular biology and genetics, explained how a pig's inability to utilize phosphorus from cereal grains can create a serious pollution problem on farms and how, to reduce the pollution, farmers often add phytase to the pigs' feed. (Phytase, an enzyme, releases phosphorus so a pig can digest it rather than excrete it.) Phillips described how this inspired him, Cecil Forsberg, and their research team to develop animals that could synthesize their own phytase enzymes. He then told his audience about how the team linked a phytase gene from E. coli to a region of a mouse gene responsible for the expression of phytase in salivary glands. Next, he said, they injected the transgene into isolated fertilized embryos and introduced those embryos to the reproductive tract of a sow. They then took the sow to term, helped her deliver piglets, and tested the piglets for the presence of the transgene and the new enzyme. All in all, he added, it took nearly five years to give birth to the first generation of the enviropig.

To help the journalists better understand his explanation, Phillips had his lab assistant, Roy Meidinger, show them how a transgene could be transferred to a single-celled gilt embryo. (A gilt is a female pig that hasn't given birth.) The group watched as Meidinger, under a microscope, using a very fine glass needle with a blunt end and a light vacuum suction, picked up the embryo in fluid. Using a second needle containing two to three microlitres of fluid and the transgene, he punctured the embryo from its free side, through its outer membrane and past the nuclear membrane. Then he gently squeezed the liquid and the new gene into the embryo's nucleus. Finally, after withdrawing the needle, the membrane resealed.

Once the demonstration was complete, the group packed into a mini-van and headed off-campus to the university's Arkell Swine Research Centre. Here, before being allowed to enter what seemed to be an ordinary pigpen, with concrete floors strewn with hay, steel bars that separated individual pens, and the smell of everything pig, the team had to shower and change. Although not sterile, the pen was swine-pathogen-free. Inside, the group would encounter first- and second-generation enviropigs.

This workshop, part of a three-day affair called "Biotechnology and the New Science of Food," was in its own way a science experiment. It was created in part because Guelph's media relations people had noticed that the coverage of food biotechnology primarily emphasized "for" and "against" arguments. They wanted to broaden reporters' perspectives by introducing them to Guelph's scientists and by giving them the opportunity to learn more on the subjects they were writing about. (They also, no doubt, wanted to influence the reporters to some extent. After all, Guelph scientists and researchers do a lot of work in food and agricultural biotechnology.)

Back at Carleton, O'Hara is doing something similar as part of her effort to build scientific literacy in young journalists. "One of the things I've done in my class," she says, "is I've sort of dragged them over to the science labs at Carleton because I think there is a kind of divide in your mind between what goes on in a lab and what turns up as science in newspapers and journals. To see the kind of niggly work that's involved in collecting data was really eye-opening for them because journalism is a slapdash kind of activity compared to doing a certain science project for years and years and years and years."

And that slapdash kind of activity can cause a whole spectrum of problems when it comes to covering complex science and technology issues, she explains. An example: "Journalists can dismiss a scientist's life work in about a 15-second clip." Or, she could have just as well added, in a 15-inch newspaper story about a scientist working on an enviropig-or a better tomato.

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