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How Press Coverage Limits Controversy in the U.S. Over Plant Biotechnology

Science and the Media

Matt Nisbet

February 22, 2006

When the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled last week that the European Union had violated international trade rules by blocking U.S. imports of genetically-modified (GM) crops, the news barely registered in the American media, with coverage limited to stories appearing in the business sections of the New York Times and Washington Post. On the airwaves, the event was ignored by the television networks, though coverage did run on NPR’s Morning Edition and Marketplace. Across these news outlets, reporting was fairly technical and contextual, focusing on the specifics of the decision, the implications for trade, and the legal reasoning behind the WTO ruling.

The press left unchallenged the industry and U.S. government view that the health and environmental risks of GM agriculture are minimal. For example, the Washington Post characterized European public opposition as really a matter of social perceptions: “An overwhelming body of scientific opinion — including regulators at the European Food Safety Authority and scientific institutes in most European countries — holds that the crops are safe to eat and pose only minor environmental risks. But European consumers were burned by food-safety scandals in the 1990s involving dioxin-laced chickens, beef capable of causing a fatal brain disease, and other disasters in which they were initially assured that the foods were safe. Their trust in the opinion of European, much less American, scientists on such matters is low.”

Alternative and more dramatic interpretations, however, were available. London’s Daily Mail tabloid trumpeted headlines full of moral outrage: “America’s GM food blitz on Ireland: Floodgates opened to Frankenstein Food.” In another article appearing at the tabloid, a Friends of the Earth UK spokesperson was able to dramatically frame the decision in terms of public accountability, with the following prominent quote: “This ruling is a direct attack on democracy. Last year, European countries voted to uphold national bans on GM products. This dispute is a desperate attempt by the U.S. and biotech industry to force GM foods onto an unwilling European market. But consumers will not be bullied into eating GM foods.” A similar framing was emphasized in coverage at The Guardian by a second spokesperson for FoE UK: “It’s a desperate attempt to force these products on an unwilling market. This will lead to even greater opposition to GM crops. Protecting wildlife, farmers and consumers is far more important than free trade rules.”

Press materials issued by U.S.-based advocacy groups, including Friends of the Earth USA, Consumers Union, and the Center for Food Safety, offered similar dramatic interpretations. For example, in the media release from FoE USA, identical themes of public accountability were echoed: “The WTO is unfit to decide what we eat or what farmers grow. It is an undemocratic and secretive institution that has no particular competence in environmental or health and safety matters.” A spokesperson from the group was quoted at the end of the NY Times article, but her public accountability framing was muted by the dominant international trade lead to the story. In follow-up coverage appearing this week on the front page of the Times’ business section, potentially negative evaluations were narrowly focused. Instead of describing the values-based arguments favored by Europeans, the article detailed research and market failures in producing the much hyped nutritional and human health benefits of the technology.

The American press reaction to the WTO decision is consistent with the history of coverage of the plant biotechnology debate in the U.S. Indeed, the framing of the issue almost exclusively around economic and research angles has helped limit political controversy over plant biotechnology in North America. I base this conclusion on the findings of a soon-to-be-published study analyzing twenty-five years of coverage of the issue at the Washington Post and the New York Times (Nisbet and Huge, forthcoming.)

The two national news organizations, as the key outlets setting the tone for the rest of the U.S. media, have consistently covered plant biotechnology as an “industry” or “regulatory” story, with coverage delegated to business and science reporters, and little or no attention from the political pages. Absent drama, moral urgency, and political conflict in reporting, plant biotechnology, even in its peak years of attention (2000-01), has rested only very modestly on the overall news agenda, receiving less total coverage than other competing science and technology issues such as the Human Genome Project or even the now dormant debate over nuclear energy.

These media trends have helped create very fertile political ground for the plant biotechnology industry in the U.S. Although I commend American journalists for avoiding the type of sensationalist hyperbole featured at the British tabloids, the U.S. press has largely ignored a range of legitimate concerns about the impact of GM crops. Since the early 1980s, several environmental and consumer groups have been calling attention to perceived systemic-level problems in the monitoring and successful segregation of plant biotechnology products, but despite extensive efforts, these groups have had little success in changing policy. A series of key federal regulatory decisions in the late 1980s and early 1990s successfully limited official debate about the technology to a narrow range of short-term health and environmental factors. Out-of-bounds for serious consideration in regulation were uncertainties about long term environmental or health risks, or calculations of social, ethical, or economic impacts. Moreover, the biotech industry has been ultra-successful at limiting the types of groups who are allowed input at regulatory agencies such as the FDA, the EPA, the USDA, and various scientific advisory boards, while the industry has enjoyed almost uniform bi-partisan support from Congress and the White House.

Science writers and business reporters have downplayed differences in opinion across academic disciplines about the impacts and risks of plant biotechnology. In her analysis of biotech coverage, Priest (2001) observes that science writers often rely heavily on the voices of university-based plant biotechnologists who define risk narrowly in terms of short term threats to human health or the environment, while leaving out views from other disciplines, such as ecologists who might perceive risk in terms of the impacts on the wider ecosystem, or social scientists who might discuss social, economic, and ethical risks. Indeed, surveys of university scientists and social scientists reflect the diversity in opinion about biotechnology that occurs outside the discipline of plant genetics, including contrarian views that are likely to go unreported if science writers focus narrowly on plant scientists as their only academic sources (See Lyson 2000; Priest and Gillespie 2000).

Though increased media attention to plant biotechnology and to more dramatic definitions of the issue have surfaced in recent years, challenging the status quo in regulation, the ability of the biotech industry in early policy decisions to define the debate around short term environmental and health risks has led to lasting and powerful feedback effects (Sheingate, forthcoming). The early success was in part attributable to minimal media coverage, which made the late 1980s policy decisions along with precedent-setting early 1990s market approvals essentially “non-decisions” for the wider public. This is in contrast to the U.K and Europe, where from the beginning, there has been much wider social input. The early inclusion of environmental, consumer, and labor groups, and the comparatively stronger emphasis on transparency and public accountability, led to a very different European regulatory regime that took into account social and economic factors as well as the possibility of unknown future technical risks (For a comparative history, see Jasanoff, 2005).

Despite attempts to shift debate towards more dramatic frames by various opposition groups, media discourse in the U.S. around plant biotechnology has remained predominantly technical. Because the issue has remained debated almost exclusively within regulatory agencies, and because the issue has remained defined in technical and scientific terms, it is likely that journalists have been unable to place plant biotechnology into a larger narrative structure, giving greater meaning to passing events, thereby facilitating an increase in coverage of the issue. Only in letters-to-the-editor and opinion editorials have the social and ethical dimensions of plant biotechnology been emphasized.

Cycles of attention to plant biotechnology have appeared, but they remain small scale perturbations rather than escalating into the large scale news dramas that have surrounded media celebrity issues like stem cell research, intelligent design, or even the Human Genome Project. In fact, given the limited carrying capacity of the news media, competition with celebrity issues such as Presidential elections, and after 2001, terrorism and war, may have all significantly constrained attention to plant biotech, just when events (notably the StarLink corn affair in 2000), might have otherwise propelled the issue into the wider media spotlight.

There are two emerging trends, however, that might eventually weaken the ability of biotech proponents to control policymaking, and the nature of news coverage. First, critics have added narrative fidelity to their framing efforts by connecting GM crops to other contemporary issues. For example, in her recent book, scientist and ecologist Jane Goodall (2005) links plant biotech to parallel controversies confronting the American food system including childhood obesity, the survival of traditional farmers, organics, and animal welfare. If and when plant biotechnology becomes a topic of widespread attention and concern in the U.S., it will likely be because it resonates and is framed in combination with these other food system issues.

Second, despite the recent WTO ruling, evolving trends in international trade increasingly leave the U.S. as an outlier in its regulation and definition of the risks associated with plant biotechnology. And while biotech opponents have not had much success at changing the U.S. policy regime, they have had success in shaping the actions and fortunes of industry members. It may be that if significant change happens relative to U.S. regulation of plant biotechnology, it comes about not through the domestic internal pressures channeled and amplified through dramatic and widespread news coverage, but rather through the external pressures of international trade.

Further Reading

Matt Nisbet

Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D, is a professor in the School of Communication at American University. From 1997 to 1999, he worked as public relations director for CSICOP and Skeptical Inquirer.