Food journalists beware

You may have seen that whole study last week about the lab rats that developed tumors after eating genetically modified foods. I read about it a couple times over, and I had friends who mentioned it to me while shaking their heads as though resigned to the state of world affairs.

But seriously, let’s step back a minute and take a look at the larger context. I’m not going to dissect the study (Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize, published in the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology) apart — that’s a task better suited to people with more of a scientific background than I have.

For example, there’s science journalist Carl Zimmer. He blogged about the study and spoke with On The Media about it, too, pointing out that for one thing, the group of rats tested was actually a strain that’s specifically bred to develop tumors so that they can be studied. And although the study was long-term, the sample sizes were quite small. Scicurious, another Discover blogger, says “All we can really conclude is that rats who are prone to develop tumors … develop tumors.”

Again, I’m not saying this study is true or false. But Carl Zimmer’s complaints — that reporters took “peer-reviewed” to mean “proven” and accepted confidentiality deals that allowed the researchers to essentially control the message that was released to the public — got me thinking.

Part of the problem here is that most journalists are generalists, and they (we) for the most part don’t have the topic-specific knowledge to evaluate scientific studies or novel-length policy tracts, and are writing on a deadline.

Side note: this is why I chose to go to graduate school in food systems — not so that I could be an expert in the field, but so that I would have a better concept of what voices were at play and where they were coming from, and so that I would have a better idea of where to look to get my second or third or fourth opinions on any given story.

Back to the point: Let’s just add to the whirlwind of journalistic limitations the fact that studies are notoriously tricky things (see: the recent debacle over a study on micronutrients in organic foods that got the media and everybody else into a tizzy over whether organics are “better” than conventional or not. Don’t even get me started on the concept of “better” — what does that even mean, and for whom?).

When you’re writing a news article, you’re looking for a pithy lede. That’s not going to be “this study shows that levels of micronutrients in organic produce might be similar to those in conventional produce, with quite a few qualifications and no definitive conclusion.” What you want is a statement like “A recent study shows that organic foods aren’t any healthier for you,” which is very rarely what studies actually show.

So there’s always oversimplification on the part of the media.

But there’s a whole other side to this story, which is the media consumer.

The thing is, food is by its nature incredibly biased. Everybody knows the best way to cook their family’s traditional dish, or what the best bagel or Thai place in any given town is (it’s certainly no better than Absolute Bagels, the best bagel place in the world, but that’s beside the point).

When it comes down to it, food isn’t just something we do three times a day. For many of us, eating isn’t just a necessity but also a ritual. It’s something connected with stories, emotions, vivid memories of times and places past.

So it’s no wonder that food stories are something that people latch onto. Food stories spread like wildfire — take the bacon shortage that’s been flooding Twitter and Facebook feeds everywhere this week (before you start panicking, here’s Slate to calm everybody down. Rising corn prices = lower pork/bacon production = higher pork/bacon prices = lower pork/bacon demand. Simple economics, according to Matthew Yglesias)

And once a story is out there, it’s out there. No matter how much anyone issues corrections, clarifications, fact-checks, or anything else, there will be people who read that first article and adopt it as the unshakeable truth because, well, they probably wanted to believe it in the first place.

Ultimately, this is why food is both a wonderful and a terrifying thing to write about. It’s wonderful because it’s one of the few things we all have to do every day. It’s terrifying because it’s a topic that so many are passionate about.

Don’t get me wrong — there are competing discourses in every field, and there’s always misinformation traveling around. Journalistic integrity and thoroughness is a struggle in any field. Journalists in the food and agriculture arena have a particular responsibility to be accurate and to inform people well, though — we all have to eat every day, three meals if we’re lucky, and that involves constant consumer decisions. There are precious few journalists working to decode the complex policy, science, and discourses happening every day behind all that food we eat. If those journalists are jumping to conclusions, reporting studies on whims and failing to seek out more than just one side of the story, that’s not helping anyone make informed choices. That’s propagating false information, which does far more harm than good.

After all, if we agree that it’s the media’s role to inform and educate, then let’s do it well.

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