Posted: September 12, 2007
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Article SummaryThis op-ed complains about inaccurate media coverage of mad cow disease. It cites me to make the point that reporters cover both sides of controversies without worrying about which side is right.

Do we care about the truth?

The Times (U.K.), February 19, 1999

Our fears over genetically modified foods have been fuelled by a media frenzy and inaccurate reporting, says Science Editor Nigel Hawkes.

The scare over genetically modified food has been a classic example of a little-studied phenomenon, the media feeding frenzy. From small starts, frenzies quickly develop a terrible momentum. Sense and judgment are the first casualties; public understanding the final victim. For as long as it lasts, readers and viewers are buried in a blizzard of stories that compete to paint apocalyptic visions of horrors to come. Politicians shamelessly join in. Then, like a tap being turned off, it stops.

Absolutely the finest example in my experience was the flesh-eating bug which transfixed the press in the summer of 1994. This was a strain of Streptococcus capable of killing those unlucky enough to be infected with it.

There was nothing new about the organism or the symptoms it caused, which had been beautifully described in a surgical journal by a doctor working in Shanghai as long ago as 1919. Nor was there any real evidence of an epidemic, or even a significant increase in the number of cases. Yet for a week or two the flesh-eating bug made huge headlines. Then it was gone – and hardly a word has appeared on the subject since.

The GM-food frenzy was triggered by a two-page spread in The Guardian on February 12, claiming that tests on GM potatoes had damaged rats which had eaten them. Curiously, an almost identical article which had appeared in The Mail on Sunday at the end of January had passed unnoticed.

The Guardian article, despite its length, did not address two key issues: that the GM potatoes tested were not intended as human food, and would never have passed muster as such; and that the gene inserted into them was for a toxin. Small wonder, perhaps, that they might have had damaging effects on the rats, though whether they actually did is still in dispute. By all normal journalistic standards, the story was holed below the waterline.

But it made no difference. The controversy quickly took wing, sprouting subplots and generating a tremendous row more or less about nothing. As it happens, GM foods have been better monitored and controlled in Britain than anywhere else in the world. Small trial plots are all that have been planted. No ill effects to health have been observed, nor are they likely. Possible environmental effects are being carefully monitored. Is this the impression left by the row? I think not.

Frenzies are caused partly by bad reporting, but could only happen in an environment ripe for them. We live in a society increasingly anxious about risks, real and imaginary, as the sociologist Frank Furedi has pointed out in his book The Culture of Fear. He cites a study of the medical literature which showed that in the five-year period between 1967 and 1972, about 1,000 articles containing the word risk were published. In the period between 1986 and 1991, there were 80,000 such articles.

Had risks increased eightyfold in such a short time? Clearly not. We live in a far less risky time than our parents or grandparents. Today fewer than one woman in 10,000 dies in childbirth: in 1940, one in 300 did. The disappearance of the Soviet Union is the greatest risk reduction in our lifetimes; but better drugs, a more plentiful diet, social security and other changes have also cut the ordinary risks of life.

What has changed is attitude to risk. At a time when most risks are actually declining, people are worrying more. But they lack the skill to assess risks, to develop a true calculus of risk in which real dangers are distinguished from mere scares. Driving a car is far more dangerous than flying, but we seldom hear of people with driving-phobia.

The second reason comes closer to home for journalists. It sounds pompous to say so, but today's journalists are not much interested in the truth. As the American academic Peter Sandman of Rutgers University in New York puts it: “In the epistemology of routine journalism, there is no truth, or at least no way to determine truth. There are only conflicting claims, to be covered as fairly as possible.”

So journalists feel they have done their job if they quote both sides of an argument, “tossing the hot potato of truth into the lap of the audience”, as Sandman says. This approach has the effect of giving all sources equal value, of making the most outrageous claims seem credible – and a lot more interesting – than the sober responses elicited from official sources.

Nobody would want to deny a hearing to those opposed to GM foods, but crying wolf is seldom sensible, unless a wolf is truly at the door. If one believed all the scares floated by environmentalists and health campaigners, one would never set foot out of doors, though, of course, that would still leave one the option of falling down stairs.

Newspapers that join in a feeding frenzy put their reputations at risk and earn the contempt of readers who know about the subject. Worse, they help to create an atmosphere of fear which could threaten the forces which have made life less risky in the past century. Fortunately, I suspect that most readers treat frenzies with the disdain they deserve.

Copyright © 1999 by The Times (U.K.)

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