"What is needed is for all off us to realise that the complexities of science sometimes do not permit a simple, black-and-white conclusion."

SIRC – Media Watch 25-05-99

GM U-turns

Following last week's preoccupation with the GM debate the press has been alive with conflicting comment. Most significantly the government's Select Committee on Science and Technology, calling for the introduction of a Code of Practice governing media coverage of scientific matters, appears to have been partly accepted and has resulted in the publication of some substantial, but undoubtedly temporary changes of tack.

The Independent, one of the main flag wavers of the anti-GM banner, this week called for a degree of balance in scientific reporting. Since February 07, the date on which the Independent on Sunday launched its campaign to get a three-year freeze on the development of genetically modified crops, its columns have contained a plethora of comment on GM issues. Very few of these have attempted to impart any sense of balance. In a leader published this week entitled "A science lesson we must all digest", it suggested that the business of accurately covering science issues was a complex one. By attempting to over-simplify often difficult concepts and processes, the media may at times be guilty of 'unintentionally' distorting the facts.

While on the one hand the article states that "Dr Pusztai's work was a classic example of science by press release" it refuses to admit its own culpability and suggests that it is the scientists who are at fault for not allowing peer review before publication. Refuting the Science and Technology Committee's call for a code of practice, the article cites it as "missing the point" and offers its own alternative. "What is needed is for all of us to realise that the complexities of science sometimes do not permit a simple, black-and-white conclusion." It is obviously not the scientists' fault that sub-editors seek eye-catching headlines that over-simplify the broader issues at hand. GM has become a symbol for all that is environmentally threatening about technology. With labels such as "frankenfoods" the media has instilled the belief that all GM crops are equally risky, simply because they have been genetically modified. A further leader entitled "Less spin more science" re-states the Independent's call for a moratorium on GM foods, and counters claims that their campaign has been in any way luddite or hysterical.