I recently stumbled on an article in China Daily with the headline ‘Agriculture minister reaffirms safety of GM foods’. The China Daily a publication I take strange pleasure in reading, mainly trying to understand the level of censorship and fruitlessly attempting work out whether people believe any of what’s in there.
The article itself is very accurately summarised by the headline – you learn the specifics of where he was, but there’s nothing approaching analysis.
This is in complete contrast with the UK media, something we can be thankful for. Our Environment Secretary tells us of the safety of GM crops and we may get headlines such as Opponents of third world GM crops are ‘wicked’, says Environment Secretary Owen Paterson but they’re followed by other points of view. This balance reminds us to question what politicians tell us, but does it do more than that?
If you read further down, you get comments from known GM opponents, but it’s pretty thin on facts and analysis. It’s ‘he said, she said‘ journalism.
I recently went to a debate about ‘false balance’ in the media, a common criticism of the BBC when they go in search of opponents to balance every story. You can’t invite a scientist speak in favour of GM without having a representative of the Soil Association to disagree. The trouble is that for cases such as climate change you end up with a debate which is represented 50:50 by those who believe in climate change and those who don’t. The minority view gets equal representation.
There’s a full write up of the event, but there were a few take-home points for me.
We need to represent different points of view, even when we are extremely close to a scientific consensus. We don’t need to argue whether climate change is man-made every time it is covered, but there are many legitimate ways to act on the evidence we have, and it is valuable for the media to report these differences.
Choosing the extreme points of view is one way to show ‘balance’, but it generally ignores most of the nuances. In a GM Freeze vs university scientist show-down I’m pretty much guaranteed to side with the scientist. I know really that I want to walk the middle ground, but that was too boring to present, so I don’t get to hear of the genuine concerns I should be analysing.
One of the reasons I would side with the scientist is that the ‘anti-GM lobby’ often misrepresent the facts – Seralini tells us that GM gives you cancer and so on. A great idea that someone came up with at the debate was to give a science editor the chance to fact check (we were specifically talking about the Today programme but it applies everywhere). If one interviewee says that climate change will boost global crop yields, the science editor gets the chance to say ‘well, actually…‘.
The moral of the story – be grateful for the UK press, but we need to find a better way of reporting the uncertainty and differences of opinions surrounding issues such as GM crops, and interviewees need to stick to the truth.