Don’t Step in That Sh*t: How the GMO-Study Authors Played the Media

Last week a small group of scientists and journalists signed a secret pact to do a bad, bad, really bad thing to science, journalism, and everyone that depends on either of those things, which is to say everybody, including you. The authors of a small, weak study of genetically modified crops managed to warp media coverage of their small, weak study by letting journalists read versions of the study before publication (and a big press conference) only if the journalists agreed not to talk to any outside scientists before the embargo date.

As Carl Zimmer points out at The Loom:

the strategy was clear: prevent science writers from getting informed outside opinions, so that you can bask in the badly-reported media spotlight. Sure, the real story may emerge later, but if you get that first burst of attention, you can lock in people’s first impressions.… The French scientists got the attention of the French government, and thus reinforcing opposition to genetically modified foods, although the study itself fails to make that case. Mission accomplished.

This is, as my grandpa would say, a mighty big pile of Grade-A horseshit. It’s a move specifically designed to undermine the mechanisms of good science, good journalism, and good policy, all so that the authors of a weak study can shape a political debate — in this case, the debate over whether to ban genetically modified foods. It also just happens to fall just before publication of an upcoming book by one of the study authors. And it worked. The study generated a ton of positive coverage before experts had a chance to point out how weak it was. The president of France immediately cited the study as a reason to ban such foods, as did anti-GMO activists in California.

Fortunately, Zimmer was quick to point out why this thing smells so bad — and that shame should fall on scientists who use such confidentiality agreements and on journalists who agreed to them. Science and journalism work, when they do, by casting light on their subjects from several different angles. Intentionally generating an initial burst of press coverage that draws from only one perspective betrays all the good interests of both disciplines — and of the citizens and readers who fund those endeavors.

Good on Zimmer and everyone else who called this out. For more, read Zimmer’s full (but short) post here, or listen to a fine short interview with Zimmer that Brook Gladstone did at On The Media.


Stenographers, anyone? is a good roundup of reactions by the invaluable Embargo Watch, which chronicles other hijinks that the embargo allows. Other good roundups by Deborah Blum at Knight Science Journalism Tracker and

Single-Study Syndrome and the G.M.O. Food Fight, in which the Times’ Andy Revkin points out this is also an example of the press’s habit of giving fevered coverage to even small, weak single studies.

Science Held Hostage, Zimmer’s account of a similar ruse used to spin coverage of a fossil discovery.

Are GMO foods safe? Opponents are skewing the science to scare people.  by Keith Kloor at Slate.

Image by dok1, via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

2 responses

  1. I don’t care if Genetically Modified foods add a 0.01$ chance of cancer.

    Crops that can grow on the ocean would solve world hunger!

  2. Genetically modified foods can save sight and lives, no less. Don’t people realize that nature itself constantly recombines genes from slightly different plants? Nature has been doing this long before humans even thought about itl.

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