Inaccuracy — not bias — is the scourge of the media
The media is often criticised for focusing excessively on 'bad' news about GM crops (indeed about events in general). Such criticism ignores the fact that the main problem is not media bias, but inaccurate reporting.
One of the common misconceptions about genetically modified (GM) crops is that their main contribution to human well-being is through increasing farmers' profits by raising crop yields. This might be through the production and sale of food (such as corn or rice) or staple commodities (such as cotton). But in each case, critics seek to contrast the pursuit of profit with the potential damage that such crops could cause, either through their impact on human health or through their disruption of natural cycles.
What is often forgotten, however, is that there are sometimes ways in which increasing crop productivity can also benefit both human health and the natural environment, as a direct (if sometimes unintentional) by-product. Perhaps the best example is crops that have been genetically engineered to be resistant to destructive insects: these can significantly reduce the use of pesticides.
In many developing countries, the excessive use of chemical pesticides has taken a heavy toll. Badly protected farmers who spend large amounts of time drenching crops with liquids designed to kill unwanted pests frequently fall victim to overexposure to the same poison; in some countries the deaths are numbered in the thousands every year. And the damage such pesticides often inflict on local wildlife can be almost as severe.
All the more reason, therefore, to welcome the results of a study carried out in China, and published two weeks ago in the journal Science, demonstrating a dramatic fall in pesticide poisoning among farmers growing GM crops (see GM rice 'good for Chinese farmers health and wealth). The study showed that up to 11 per cent of farmers growing non-GM rice suffered from symptoms of pesticide-poisoning. In contrast, there were no cases of poisoning among farmers growing GM rice.
In principle, environmentalist groups might be expected to applaud such results. After all, such groups have, in the past, been among the loudest critics of the excessive use of chemical pesticides both in developed and developing countries. Remember the way that Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, a violent protest against such practices in the United States, triggered the emergence of the environmental movement in the early 1960s.
Similarly, it could be argued that, since such groups claim to have the interests of farm workers and small farmers at heart — particularly when it comes to condemning their potential exploitation by multinational seed corporations — they should have another reason for welcoming the results of the Chinese study.
But praise has not been forthcoming from GM critics. And, partly as a result of this silence, the media has also been relatively silent. The news of the Chinese results has not been totally ignored. But its coverage has been relatively muted, and certainly far less than if the outcome had been the reverse — namely if the studies had revealed that the GM rice actually increased the health problems experienced by the farm workers who handled it.
All this has prompted its own comments in some quarters. A member of the board of directors of the American Council on Science and Health — an industry-funded body that frequently challenges the actions of environmentalists on health and safety issues — for instance suggests that rather than remaining silent, critics of excessive pesticide use "should be on the rooftops shouting hosannas to biotechnology and promoting the use of insect-resistant crops".
An appropriate response
But this reaction prompts its own response. Environmental groups are frequently criticised for taking an excessively negative attitude towards the issues they are concerned about. Yet that should surprise no one, since it is after all not their function to promote new technologies, particularly those in the commercial sphere; that can be left the public relations experts.
Rather, such groups are important in any society precisely because of their role in pointing out — and indeed in focusing on — either undesirable side-effects of scientific and technological progress that have been given insufficient attention, or potential dangers before they occur. If such groups had been stronger in the United States in the 1950s, the widespread ecological damage recorded by Carson might never have occurred.
The same can be said about the media. It is not the role of the media to give equal prominence to all news about an issue, whether good or bad. The prominence given to a particular story will be based on a news editor's assessment of the potential interest of readers or viewers. Significantly, publications that have focused on providing only 'good' news seldom generate wide audiences (or sales).
Blaming the media for giving higher priority to negative, rather than positive, stories about GM crops is therefore missing the point. Partly such criticism is frequently overstated; supporters of GM often exaggerate the relative balance between the two types of stories that appear in the media. Partly the coverage provided by newspapers reflects the type of information that people want to read about, particularly in a world where the potential dangers of science and technology are often downplayed.
The scourge of inaccuracy
None of this is a reason to feel complacent about the way that issues surrounding GM are covered in the media (or portrayed by environmentalist critics, which often comes to the same thing). As has been pointed out in the past in these columns, proponents of GM crops often have a valid point when they claim that coverage of the issue is often distorted.
But the real crime is not bias in itself. Indeed, it would be naïve to pretend that a journalist can (or should even pretend to) remain totally objective about the issues he or she is covering, and a passionate interest can often inspire high-quality reporting. In contrast, the worst distortions come when facts are reported inaccurately. For the wrong facts can never become the basis of good decisions, and truthfulness (whether in reporting or campaigning) is essential in a way that objectivity is not.
Yet inaccuracies abound on both sides of the GM debate. On the one hand, over-enthusiasts for GM have been heard to argue that GM foods are completely safe to eat, make no significant impact on the environment and will eventually solve the world's food problems. On the other, critics will play equally loose with the truth to claim that such foods have been "shown" to be dangerous to human health, or to overstate the potential environmental dangers compared to other types of agricultural innovation (such as chemical pesticides).
Thomas Jefferson, one of the key authors of the US Declaration of Independence, once wrote that "whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government". Less familiar is the phrase that followed: "that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights". Jefferson was not saying that information about the good should balance information about the bad. Rather, he was saying that information about the bad should be accurate if it is to be corrected.