by Brandon Mitchener
In a year in which the Oxford English Dictionary has named “post-truth” the word of the year, it should surprise no one that the global news media are under increasing scrutiny for failing to hold politicians and others accountable for telling outright lies that leave a mark—sometimes a decisive mark—on public policies. Lies helped fuel the “Brexit” vote in the United Kingdom, and lies and fake news played a starring role in the U.S. presidential election.
In the U.S., major news organisations including The New York Times and The Washington Post belatedly ramped up live online fact-checking services in the realisation that most voters couldn’t tell lies from facts. Google and Facebook have belatedly announced plans to ban fake news from their sites. But what about Europe?
As Monsanto’s spokesman in Europe for the past four years, I have been on the front lines of the war against lies and misinformation about genetically modified (GM) foods and pesticides. I am not surprised that lies have helped swing referendums and elections this year because I’ve witnessed first-hand the malaise in much of European journalism, especially some U.K. journalism, which feeds on fake news as a source of “clickbait” and profits more from controversy than it does from being fair.
At this point some people might be tempted to roll their eyes and say, “He would say that, wouldn’t he? After all, he’s a spokesman for Monsanto.” What most people don’t know is that I was a journalist for American media for 15 years well before I made the switch to public relations, and that I am passionate about society’s need for objective sources of news and information as the basis for sound public policies. Monsanto, for its part, is equally concerned about gaps in understanding and misperceptions of what we do and why we do it.
So, a year ago, we commissioned a research project to search for, analyse and as much as possible objectively quantify balance—or lack thereof—in key European media organisations’ coverage of the topics of most relevance to Monsanto. While the research was nominally focused on stories related to Monsanto, GMOs and glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto’s popular Roundup herbicide), the results offer some pretty broad insights into the behaviour of major media organisations, insights that most likely apply to other topics as well.
The basis for the research was a series of simple, objective tests that any news consumer should be able to understand and replicate. For example, did the story betray any evidence that the journalist had bothered to call Monsanto (or a like-minded industry group) for a comment? What was the ratio of unfavourable commentary to favourable commentary within the same article? Did the journalist use lazy or imprecise language such as “critics say” or “poisonous” without evidence or elaboration? Did the journalist fact-check the story, or “cherry-pick” anecdotes, i.e. cite views that underlined a particular viewpoint while ignoring contradictory evidence which was easy to find?
Mediatrack Research in London analysed 1,311 news stories covering the period from March 2015 to July 2016. You can see their full methodology for the research here. Among other important points, they note that “It is completely accepted in this research that critical or unfavourable news and views can be ‘fair’ to Monsanto—or indeed any other business—so long as the journalist accepts an obligation, wherever possible, to refer the facts of the story under preparation to the company for comment and/or advice, and then present relevant and objective counter-balancing content within the story.”
The upshot? There was some good news along with some bad news.
First, the good news:
- German news coverage is significantly more balanced than most, with 82% of all articles reviewed deemed objective. That matters because Germany is the biggest country and has the biggest economy in the European Union and the most votes in its institutions.
- English-language news agencies take the prize for giving Monsanto and industry associations an opportunity to comment on coverage that concerns them. More than half of their stories show evidence of an attempt to seek a comment from Monsanto, EuropaBio or the Glyphosate Task Force.
The sad news: The research revealed an abysmal situation in which “bias, mostly unintended, is present” in much of European media coverage on Monsanto, GMOs and pesticides. For example:
- More than 73% of all stories show no evidence of a journalist having called Monsanto (or even industry allies such as relevant trade associations) for a comment. That means that stories were often all but dictated by forces opposed to Monsanto, GMOs or pesticides. Says Mediatrack: “In line with best-practice journalism, we would have expected to see at least 65-75% of stories showing clear evidence of contact with Monsanto in terms of a spokesperson quoted, the company’s viewpoint explained or unique Monsanto material cited relevant to the thrust for the story.” Fact-checking almost inevitably leads to more nuanced and balanced reporting than accepting and quoting the views of just one side of a debate. That’s Journalism 101 for someone who was taught that “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
- The most common form of bias was the use of “unsubstantiated propositions”—for example citing assertions such as any presence of a pesticide constitutes “poison”, whereas Paracelsus as far back as 1500 understood that “the dose makes the poison” and any pesticide for sale in Europe is highly regulated.
- Stacking the deck with multiple sources was another common sin. This occurs, for example, when journalists quote multiple activists opposed to GMOs or pesticides in a way that might appear to represent balance—because they’ve quoted multiple sources—when in fact those multiple sources are all allies in a campaign against GMOs or pesticides.
- Omission of key content—otherwise known as cherry-picking—featured in more than one of three stories. This happens when, for example, a journalist cites one government minister opposed to a product approval while neglecting to mention that another government minister supports it, or when quoting a source whose research has been thoroughly discredited without any mention of that fact. Most journalists no longer quote the discredited research that claimed vaccinations cause autism, but many seem to have no problem quoting equally discredited or controversial research claiming that GMOs are unsafe—contrary to the finding of every food safety authority in Europe, the United States, Canada and other countries that they are at least as safe as any other food. Overall, 37% of stories “showed evidence of bias in sourcing the story, in selective mention of individuals out-of-context or in selective mention of events and institutions without relevant counter-balancing information,” Mediatrack found.
- Spain is the only market with more supportive stories than critical, probably in part because it’s the only country in the study sample where GM seeds have been grown commercially for 20 years and many journalists roll their eyes at the GM debate still raging elsewhere in Europe.
- The Financial Times stands out as a beacon in a U.K. market, which shows one of the lowest levels of balanced coverage, led by The Guardian, from which just 10 (27%) of its 37 stories on Monsanto, GMOs and pesticides met the research criteria for balance.
- The French media displayed the least balance, with one in every four stories beyond 60% critical, and one in every five of those more than 80% critical. Can it surprise anyone that the French public and French politicians have a one-sided view of Monsanto or modern agriculture if that is all that their mainstream media are giving them?
- Politico Europe, which bounded onto the European scene with a specialised Food & Agriculture news service for paid subscribers only, “has taken a sharp turn for the worse” since that service launched, apparently preferring sensationalism over fact-checking and fairness.
- In fact, the EU Specialist Media sample, which includes Politico and Euractiv, “trails the overall norm for ‘balanced’ coverage (65%) by some 10%,” according to Mediatrack.
Monsanto is fully aware of the conflicting demands on today’s media, and sympathises with journalists called to write a story on a tight deadline while simultaneously feeding Twitter and other ravenous social media channels. At the same time, we believe consumers and decision-makers depend on fair and balanced reporting—which is not necessarily the same as reporting that is friendly to Monsanto—to make sound decisions for the greater good. Currently, it seems much of Europe’s leading media fall far short of that ideal.
To learn more about the research, please contact a member of Monsanto’s European public affairs team or ask a question below.