How media scares poison real issue debate

Journalists occasionally get the story wrong. And sometimes that’s unintentional.

But deliberate media scares are a major reputation risk which endangers legitimate discussion on important public issues. Two recent cases highlight how manipulation of or by the media can poison real debate.

In France a seemingly scientific study linked GM corn to increased cancer in laboratory rats. The study got widespread publicity and Russia even imposed a temporary ban on imports of GM corn.

However experts soon smelled a rat.  They reported that the conclusions of the study were not supported by the published data. And they questioned the extraordinary media process by which selected journalists were expected to sign a confidentiality agreement which prevented them from seeking independent views before publication. It also became clear that the lead scientist is a long-time campaigner against GM products and that, by coincidence, he was about to launch a new anti-GM book.

The German and EU food safety agencies promptly declared the research couldn’t support its claims, followed by a similar damning review from the French Biotechnology Council asked by its government to examine the study. The President of the Australian Society of Plant Science said there didn’t seem to be anything in the story to suggest GM organisms are bad for you per se, and the Australian Newspaper carried a highly critical article by enviro-sceptic Bjorn Lomborg who called the whole episode a fiasco designed to force a single solution to the forefront of public debate.  Predictably, anti-GM activists spread the dubious report far and wide.

Just days later, a similar case was perpetrated in the US, where an ABC TV report claimed food safety authorities were concerned about “worrisome levels” of arsenic in rice. Crisis blogger Gerald Baron examined the claim and found the story was completely groundless.  He said the original FDA report said the level of arsenic in rice was well below any cause for concern and it hadn’t changed for 20 years.  So much for the ABC scare story.

Such deliberate scares pose a real threat to the credibility of the media and also to the credibility of sound science.  They hark back to the notorious Alar scare sparked by false health allegations in an American TV broadcast in 1989 which saw huge quantities of apples and apple juice destroyed and the national apple industry temporarily on its knees. It was described as “one of the slickest, most cynical fear campaigns in recent American history.” Experts at the time expressed the hope that journalists would learn to be more cautious about playing along with activist and media manipulation.  Sadly their hope seems to have been misplaced.

For organizations facing such allegations there is a critical need to

• Respond promptly and engage with stakeholders

• Encourage independent experts to step forward

• Spell out the facts without too much scientific jargon

• Call out deceit and misrepresentation

It might also be useful to urge the public to be cautious about any news stories which feature the words “Shock new findings . . .”  or  “New study links . . .”  or  “An alarming percentage of . . . ”  or any of the other lazy tricks used to manipulate opinion.

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About managingoutcomes

Issue and crisis management expert
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