01 Oct 2000 Print Trumps Broadcast Media in Accurate Reporting of Bioengineered Corn Recall
Now that the corn dust has settled regarding Kraft Food’s voluntary recall of taco shells containing bioengineered corn not approved for humans, it is time to assess how well the media covered this story.
My grade: C.
But there were wide variations in the quality of media coverage.
I’d give most newspapers and other written media an A- or B+. But the broadcast networks failed miserably.
To be sure, the broadcast media had its use: informing large numbers of Americans who never read a newspaper that the taco shells were recalled. If the shells had actually been dangerous, this would have been a tremendous public service.
But by and large, this science-based story proved too technical for most broadcast media, and that’s why I totally disagree with those who predict that newspapers will be less influential in coming decades.
Our increasing reliance on technology will give rise to more and more news stories and ethical dilemmas that require Americans to understand the science behind them. With the exception of formats that allow for in-depth discussions, like talk radio and rare detailed reports, broadcast media fail to cover these stories well.
Sam Donaldson recently admitted as much on a CNN Reliable Sources broadcast when he said that to hold on to shrinking audiences, broadcast journalists are “reaching out to more and more to people who believe in three-headed cows.”1
Consider how the CBS Evening News dealt with the taco shell recall story on September 22.
Sounding like a tabloid weekly, Dan Rather began: “The fear became reality tonight…” 2
But there was little to nothing for consumers to fear. There is no evidence that the corn is harmful, even if, in the worst possible scenario, humans have an allergy to the genetically-engineered protein in the corn. Professor Steve L. Taylor, Ph.D., head of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, says it is “virtually impossible” for any consumer to have an existing allergy to the genetically-modified corn.3 So, in other words, the corn may be safe, but even if it isn’t, you’d have to eat a lot of it over time to be harmed – which is impossible to do, since Kraft pulled the shells off the market.
Contrast Rather’s overblown, audience-seeking lead with the treatment this same story received in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a decent but not atypical daily metropolitan newspaper.
The Post-Dispatch didn’t downplay the story, calling the shells “the first genetically-engineered food ever to be recalled from grocery-store shelves.”
But the reporter, Tina Hesman, both had – and took – the opportunity to explain the science behind the story. Readers learned that this corn differs from standard corn in that it is engineered to be resistant to a particular pest. They learned that the Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency have approved most genetically-engineered corn for human use, and that nearly a quarter of all corn grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered. They learned why it is possible that a protein in this particular corn could cause allergies in humans, but also why it is unlikely to do so.
And, in a conclusion designed more to inform readers than to alarm them into buying more newspapers, the story ended with a quote from Professor Taylor: “Nobody’s going to get sick. Eat your tacos and don’t be concerned.”4
Contrast this with the CBS Evening News, which on September 18 quoted only anti-biotechnology activists as experts, hyping the story by making the corn seem more dangerous than neutral experts believe. It was no more evenhanded in its September 22 follow-up.5
The cumulative effect of reporting like this will be to drive more and more thinking people to written rather than broadcast media.
But more than media consumers’ choices are affected here. Inaccurate, overly dramatic science reporting harms society.
Overhyped stories can frighten people for nothing – witness the many stories of the dangers of breast implants that were not borne out by numerous independent and government research studies. These stories attracted audiences but caused some women to have implants removed, essentially scaring them into surgery.
Sensationalist stories can harm people economically. Apple growers lost $450 million in sales, and some multi-generational family orchards went bankrupt,6 when in 1989 broadcast media irresponsibly ran with the Alar story and convinced parents that apples were bad for children.
Unscientific reporting can undermine faith in scientific inquiry, as it does when newly-released scientific studies are covered by the media without caveats or any mention that each individual study is not necessarily the last word on an issue. News consumers who are told one month that cell phones cause brain tumors and the next that they do not, or one month that margarine is good for them and the next that it is not, tend to tune out all studies – with possible repercussions to their health.
Science will play an increasing role in our lives. But we can’t rely on soundbites to guide us. If we rely on the evening news to show us the strengths and pitfalls of new technologies, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Amy Ridenour is President of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank.
1 October 9, 1999 edition of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” as reported in “Donaldson Admits to Dumbing it Down,” by Trevor Butterworth, Newswatch, Center for Media and Public Affairs, Washington, DC, October 13, 1999.
2 “CBS Evening News Broadcasts Unbalanced Claims from Liberal Activists,” MediaNomics, Media Research Center, Alexandria, VA, September 26, 2000.
3 Letter from Professor Steve L. Taylor, Ph.D., Professor and Head, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Department of Food Science and Technology.
4 Tina Hessman, “Scientists Stress that Corn OK’d for Use in Food Products in Safe,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 19, 2000.
5 “CBS Evening News Broadcasts Unbalanced Claims from Liberal Activists.”
6 Amy Ridenour, “Alar Redux: Hollywood Peddles Shaky Science Once Again,” National Policy Analysis #202, The National Center for Public Policy Research, Washington, DC, available on the Internet at http://www.nationalcenter.org/NPA202.html, June 1998.