Conference unravels poor media coverage of GMO debates

Copyright: Stuart Freedman/Panos

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[SEOUL, KOREA] Throughout Africa, nothing divides opinion and provokes heated and emotional debate as much as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) even among my well-exposed colleagues in the media fraternity.
However what transpired on a humid afternoon during a session Reporting GM Crops in Africa and Asia early this month (11 June) during the World Congress of Journalists (WCSJ) in South Korea, was completely different from what I have previously observed.

Here was a clearly a sober, well-balanced and insightful discourse on what is commonly perceived among science journalists circles as a“hot” topic.I paid rapt attention as the session unfolded.
A panel made up of Kenya-based SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa regional coordinator Ochieng’ Ogodo, Nigerian science journalist Diran Onifade, Indian science journalist Subhra Priyadarshini and China-based science journalist Yue Albert Yuan traded illuminating information moderated by a freelance science journalist Hristo Boytchev, and shedding light on what has often been a muddled GM debate as the listeners savoured every second allocated to the session.

Coverage tends to be about perceived benefits and risks than on objective reporting to sustain debate.

Ochieng’ Ogodo, SciDev.Net

Delving into the controversial subject, Ogodo told participants that coverage in the media of GMOs in Africa often lacks depth, objectivity or analysis, and tends to dwell on the uninformed, emotive debate on the pros and cons of GM.
Little of the coverage ever touched on the science of GM crops and shockingly only 10 percent has been found in past studies to contain “accurate basic information”, Ogodo observed, adding:“Coverage tends to be about perceived benefits and risks than on objective reporting to sustain debate.”
Sadly Ogodo continued, the story behind the story is left untouched, with few of the purveyors caring to carry along the critical players in the discourse, referring to the farmer and the consumer.
Onifade added that the training of African science journalists on GM was often done by entities with vested interests including GMOs promoters or the anti-GM movement. Onifade also noted that the media tend to take sides across the divide, “blurring the line between objective journalism and activism”.
The situation was not much better in Asia where according to Subhra, poor reporting and influence of activists coupled with politics have created a negative image of GM food crops in India.

Journalists in India, she said, seemed to rarely understand the complexities of GM science, while informed, neutral scientists feared speaking openly on the issue. The result is that journalists ended up getting influenced by protagonists in the discourse.
The gloomy situation, Ogodo thinks, could be solved through, among others, capacity building for science journalists to sharpen their understanding of the issue.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.