The Changing and Static Nature of GMO Coverage

Over the last couple of years, I have noticed two simultaneous trends about media coverage of GMOs. First, a larger proportion of GMO stories highlight and dispute popular myths surrounding GMOs. Second, the comments on these articles and reasons given to be skeptical or wary of GMOs have not appreciably changed.

A recent New York Times article covered a Hawaiian County Councilman’s decision over a vote to ban GMOs on the big island of Hawaii. Although it was oddly somewhat child-like in its presentation of the process (Claim A is brought up. Claim A is disputed. Claim B is considered. Claim B is disregarded…) the tone of the piece was clearly intended to highlight the value of scientific skepticism. That the councilman, Greggor Ilagan, voted against the ban because it was founded on specious arguments portrayed him as a free thinker among a populism-driven council. Naturally, his side lost and the ban was put into effect.

Many of the comments on the NYTimes article mirrored those of the supporters who attended the council hearings in Hawaii. A minority defend GMOs as safe and useful tools. The majority, however, assert their beliefs that GMOs harm their health or their environment.  Anti-GMO positions usually fall into a few categories: Concerns over the health and safety of eating GMOs. Skepticism of biotech companies (read: Monsanto). Ecological concerns. The benefits of alternative agricultural practices. I hope to spend time with each of these topics over the coming weeks and months. Most are blown out of proportion; many are unfounded. Some, however, do come down to personal stance and belief.

The recent changes in GMO coverage appear to stem from a desire by news organizations to avoid false balance. The standard journalistic practice of neutrally informing the public of both sides of an argument is only valid when there are two even sides. When consensus has yet to be reached. When opinions, morals, or ethics are at stake more than facts. The difficult part of covering GMOs as a topic is that this technology encompasses both broad scientific consensus about its safety and opinions about the proper use of GMOs in agriculture. (And that’s all before we get into misconceptions of the facts that influence people’s opinions.) It is difficult to adequately address these different aspects of the public debate surrounding GMOs because they really lie on different planes.

Plant scientists won’t rest easy until wishy-washy opinions stop influencing scientific policy. GMO skeptics won’t be satisfied as long as their opinions are tossed out even once the facts are agreed upon (which, by the way, rarely happens).

New technologies are messy. My view is that a technological advance is neutral. Our applications of a new technology can be positive or negative. We can split the atom and incinerate cities or fuel them. GMOs have been used fairly conservatively thus far and yet through a combination of pretty terrible PR from biotech companies, an anti-corporate mood throughout the country, and public skepticism driven partly by a false dichotomy between natural and artificial, they remain a pariah in the public eye. Hell, at the end of the day, some would-be opponents say it doesn't even matter. (But ssshhh, don’t tell the commenters that).

The debate surrounding GMOs has lately been described as the left’s own version of climate science denial. Sometimes I use that analogy when trying to drive home how one cannot rely on intuition when assessing a new technology. One has to seek out the facts. Certainly no political party is immune to anti-scientific bias and the progressive left has taken up anti-GMO stances for years now. There is no need to equate GMOs and climate change. But there are similarities in the process by which both global warming and agricultural GMOs are attacked. And process matters.

My own anecdotal contribution to this layman’s media coverage comes from Reddit. Reddit, popularly understood to be largely made up of young, white progressives from North America, has taken a rabid anti-GMO stance for years. (The voting system of Reddit allows one to determine which opinions are most popular, reddiquette be damned.) I've often joined these comment threads to defend the benefits of GMOs or point our popular misconceptions about the technology. Usually I am called out a shill for Monsanto. Lovely.

But over the last couple of years, the top comments have increasingly pointed out misconceptions, biases and untruths in the primary article. More reasonable discussions about the benefits and dangers of GMOs have, slowly, beaten out the vitriol. Perhaps the broader shifts in media coverage of GMOs are in fact slowly trickling through the internet and end up as slightly-more-nuanced discussions rather than ad hominem attacks. If only we could get On The Media to be as interested in this particular topic as they are in asserting that NPR isn't biased!

P.S. If Nathanael Johnson at Grist hadn't beaten me to it, a six month adventure of teasing apart the incredibly intricate issues surrounding GMOs would be right up my alley. I’m still catching up with the coverage, but what I've seen so far suggests it is well worth a read. Check it out.