Tag Archives: media scare tactics

The furor over Genetically Modified Corn reveals the activism-media link

My friend and colleague Irv Lipp alerted me to this issue of GM (Genetically Modified) maize (corn) in Europe. Here are the basic facts as I can distill them:

1. A French anti-GMO activist, Seralini, who so happens to have an anti-GMO book coming out this week, announced to the media that he was going to release the results of a scientific study that showed definitively that modified corn and herbicides made rats sicker than rats that ate regular corn.

2. He gave the study to major media outlets in France with the provision that they could not consult other experts before release.

3. The news headlines, as NPR reports, showed up stating: BREAKING NEWS: New Study Links Genetically Engineered Food to Tumors”

4. The story has been widely published.

5. Anti-GMO activists around the world have jumped on the study to push bans on GMO food with apparently some success in France and Russia.

But, as Mr. Harvey would say, here is the rest of the story. The “scientific study” is proving to be anything but scientific. I’m not qualified to go into details about why it is being roundly rejected by groups such as European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), but it seems quite obvious that Mr. Seralini and group have cynically manipulated the media into promoting his anti-GMO agenda.

Now, of course, groups that are promoting such foods are on their back feet desperately trying to counter the information (or false information) being so widely distributed.

The real story here is media manipulation. The eagerness of the media to publish a story that certainly will generate a great deal of public interest on a controversial topic plays into the hands of unscrupulous activists. The clever device of getting major media to agree to not investigate the story while it was embargoed should have led them to smell a rat. I suspect many did, but the headline was too juicy to pass up and the do not see their job as in a story like this as validating the claims, only publishing the claims.  The blog “food and drink europe” did an excellent job of analyzing the media manipulation behind this story.

Once again I have to hand it to NPR for an excellent treatment of the story. Their take on it seems to me fair, balanced and accurate. They identify the agenda of the study’s author (at least part of it since they didn’t mention his book coming out), but also point make clear the criticism. They even report that the study may show an opposite effect claimed by Mr. Seralini:

Also, if this experiment truly showed a link between genetically engineered food and tumors, one might expect the rats that ate more of the GM corn to develop more tumors. In fact, the opposite happened. The rats eating a diet of 33 percent GMO corn stayed healthier than animals eating food with a GMO concentration of just 11 percent.

And, particularly unusual for a story of this nature, NPR gives some relevant related information:

“…there’s a deeper reason why scientists like Kuiper give little credence to Seralini’s studies. There’s a saying in science: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. For most of the scientists who have been studying the safety of GMOs, it’s an extraordinary claim, at this point, to assert that the current generation of genetically modified crops are harmful to human health.

There’s no apparent reason why that should be true; No one has found new toxic substances in these crops. And the giant feeding experiment that’s been going on for the past fifteen years — hundreds of millions of Americans consuming GMO ingredients — hasn’t produced evidence of harm, either.

It would take a lot more evidence that the results of this study to change their minds.”

The sad facts of this story are:

1) The predisposition of the reader will determine their acceptance of the “science.” Mine predisposition is likely obvious to you.

2) Media scare stories like this have two sad effects: they further destroy trust in the media as a conveyor of truth, and they cause irrational fear that drives irrational public policy.

For crisis communication professionals, particularly those engaged in controversial operations such as making food, the lessons should be clear. This is what the media does, this is how it operates, this is what you have to deal with. Don’t be fooled. However, when NPR calls to do an interview, take the call.




Arsenic rice scare–justified or another example of media scare tactics?

I subscribe to Foodsafety.gov and was curious when I received an alert from the FDA about arsenic in rice. It would obviously be significant if the FDA discovered some health risk in one of the world’s most common foods. Instead, I found strong reassurance including the 20 year testing history, how many products they have tested and are in process of testing (1200 different rice products), and exactly what the arsenic levels are (in cooked rice 6.7 micrograms or millionth of a gram–which is the highest found so far).

For the FDA to do this kind of proactive reassuring and given their language in the release that recognizes consumers are concerned about this matter,  here must be some concern so I googled rice and arsenic. Here I found this story just out from ABC News’s Jim Avila. Having just read the FDA report on their extensive research I was stunned (actually really realled p-off) to hear the anchor say that the FDA was out with a report “similar” to a Consumer Reports report which said rice products had “worrisome levels” of arsenic. Please pay close attention to the headline of the ABC story, the words used to lead into the story, and the titles on the screen–all clearly design to scare the beJesus out of us who may eat some rice. Jim Avila says “now a troubling warning to limit how much rice we eat…”

Both the Avila report and the text of the online story say that the FDA is going to issue warnings: “Today, the FDA will announce it has concerns about rice and arsenic and is studying the issue, but in the meantime recommends a varied diet. Consumer Reports calls for more.”

This is so misleading regarding the FDA’s report to constitute outright lying in my mind. The FDA report says very clearly that there is no evidence to date that supports a change in diet: “Based on data and scientific literature available now, FDA is not recommending that consumers change their consumption of rice and rice products at this time, but that people eat a balanced diet containing a wide variety of grains.” Avila jumps on this recommendation that people eat a balanced diet to support his totally unsubstantiated claim that the FDA is issuing some kind of dire warning.

Avila, quoting the Consumer Report study, says rice gets more arsenic because it is grown in water. Oh boy, this issue is going to provide much fodder for environmentalists who will claim as I’m sure they already are that vast increases in arsenic levels in the atmosphere is poisoning our water and now our rice. But the FDA seems to anticipate this argument. It first states that arsenic is a naturally occurring substance (hmm, don’t think I saw that in the ABC story) but it also comes from human activity:

“Human activities also add arsenic to the environment. They include burning coal, oil, gasoline and wood, mining, and the use of arsenic compounds as pesticides, herbicides and wood preservatives.

FDA has been monitoring arsenic levels in rice for more than 20 years. Its analysis thus far does not show any evidence of a change in total arsenic levels. The change is that researchers are better able to measure whether those levels represent more or less toxic forms of arsenic. 

So, while our ability to detect arsenic and determine toxicity has dramatically improved in 20 years, there is no evidence that the amount of total arsenic has increased. That is a very relevant fact that just somehow never made it into the Consumer Reports or ABC story.

I don’t work for any rice related clients. I have no dog in this hunt other than the truth. My bias and purpose is that these kind of profit-centered media scare tactics are extremely dangerous to all of us, including our health. The fact is, rice like corn, is a miracle of nutrition that sustain a great many including those who may not be able to afford higher priced substitutes. Now, thanks to Avila and Consumer Reports, when those mothers feed their children it will be with unjustified fear. I get angry about that.

I see so many commercials on TV for those attorneys jumping on any and every medical or pharmaceutical product where they may be a case or two of someone getting some side effects. A class action is sought. Why not a class action against this kind of unwarranted fear mongering? Certainly a great many are getting hurt by it–and I don’t mean the rice producers. I mean those who will now decide it is dangerous to eat rice based on this kind of dishonest reporting. This new report by Jim Avila comes close to matching his egregious reporting on pink slime, which just landed ABC News with a $1.2 billion lawsuit. At some point I’m hoping that the ratings and profits gained by ABC News and Disney (ABC’s owner) with this kind of fear mongering will be balanced by some big legal payouts. Much better would it be to see its ratings decline because of the news viewers distrust based on this kind of dishonest reporting.

One more thing. I just watched a program on TV about longevity. I had heard before that the island of Okinawa is famous for having more centenarians than anywhere else. The have the population who live the longest in the world. It’s in their diet and hardwork, we are told. Their diet? Mostly rice.