On GMOs, Cultural Brokers, and Sticky Narratives

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorApr 10, 2015 11:38 PM


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A Zurich-based think tank asks: "Who is influencing the way we think today? Whose ideas are determining ours?" To answer that question, it teamed up with an MIT researcher to rank the world's top 100 thought leaders of 2014. The Oxford dictionary defines a thought leader as someone "whose views on a subject are taken to be authoritative and influential." In a talk I recently gave at Cornell, I discussed how some thought leaders have shaped GMO perceptions and public discourse on agricultural biotechnology. As long-time readers know, I'm interested in the emergence of popular narratives and memes, everything from the Easter Island eco-cide metaphor to the climate wars and climate/conflict framing. So it's only fitting, I suppose, that I would also look at those that influence the GMO conversation. As I wrote here several months ago:

Groups like Greenpeace and thought leaders such as Michael Pollan, Vandana Shiva, and Bill Nye have enormous clout in their respective spheres. Greenpeace is a major player on the environmental stage. Pollan has the ear of foodies, Shiva is the patron saint of socially-conscious greens, and Nye is the geeky science hero that takes on creationists. Does it muddy the science communication environment for GMOs if a big environmental group and beloved thought leaders traffic in inaccurate information? Given their reach, I think so.

[Bill Nye, it's worth noting, has since changed his mind on GMOs, though its not yet clear what he now believes.] In the wake of the Rolling Stone fallout of a badly botched magazine feature article it published late last year, there's been a a lot of discussion about journalism's infatuation with narrative storytelling. As media critic and NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen put it in his assessment:

The most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was made at the beginning: to settle on a narrative and go in search of the story that would work just right for that narrative.

In addition to numerous journalistic lapses, there were bright red flags that popped up during the reporting process of the Rolling Stone story that should have stopped the writer and editors in their tracks. But their own reservations were smothered by their belief in the larger narrative, and so they kept going. It was a collective failure. In another smart take, science journalist Christie Aschwanden laments:

An escalating fixation on perfectly drawn characters and beautiful narratives has emphasized storytelling over truth. It’s this obsession with tidy stories and uncomplicated characters that has brought us Jonah Lehrer, Mike Daisy, Tom Junod and Malcom Gladwell. The truth is rarely as poetic and neat as these writers would have us believe. To be clear, every writer makes crucial decisions in the writing — which story to tell, which details to emphasize and which to leave out. There’s no getting around this, and it’s the journalist’s job to tell a story that serves the reader, not the source. But that story must be built on truth, not the storyteller’s idealized rendition of it.

It is also the journalist's job to check the stories they are told by agenda-oritented advocates. This cuts both ways in the GMO debate. When crop biotechnology first burst onto the scene more than two decades ago, mainstream media was generally positive, argues Susanna Hornig Priest in her 2000 book, A Grain of truth: The Media, the Public, and Biotechnology. Skeptical views were not covered much by reporters she writes, because news media "privilege some positions--notably those of larger and more powerful institutions--over others, if only because of their heavy reliance on institutional sources for much of their ideas and information." The book contains many valuable insights, but as one reviewer noted, there is a discernible bias:

Priest's emphasis on the hegemonic role of pro-biotechnology institutions, for instance, leads to a corresponding neglect of other institutions, including environmental organizations and advocacy groups that are critical of the biotechnology industry. Priest believes that the views of such groups, when included at all in press reports, are discounted and delegitimated. Yet organized critics of agricultural biotechnology have had considerable though sporadic success shaping the vocabulary and the content of media coverage during the past two decades. While Priest undertakes a critical analysis of the rhetoric employed by industry representatives, she fails to pay similar attention to campaigns mounted by industry's opponents.

I would wager that since 2000, the anti-GMO side has been way more successful than the pro-GMO side at framing media coverage of biotechnology. To understand the missteps of the biotech industry (in terms of failing to gain broader public acceptance) and the winning strategies of GMO opponents, readLords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food, by Dan Charles. It's nearly 15 years old, but still relevant. I'm relatively new to the GMO debate. But when I started paying closer attention to it three or four years ago, I was struck by the amount of misinformation and ingrained myths that had taken root in the media. And I was really surprised by who was responsible for this, as I wrote in Slate in 2012:

I’ve found that fears are stoked by prominent environmental groups, supposed food-safety watchdogs, and influential food columnists; that dodgy science is laundered by well-respected scholars and propaganda is treated credulously by legendary journalists; and that progressive media outlets, which often decry the scurrilous rhetoric that warps the climate debate, serve up a comparable agitprop when it comes to GMOs.

I'm not the only one who has discovered this, either. Last year, the journalist Marc Gunther wrote an important piece for the Guardian titled, "Why NGOs Can't be Trusted on GMOs." If food safety and environmental NGOs can't be trusted on GMOs, then what about our popular thought leaders who are viewed as eco-champions? In my Cornell talk, I referred to them as "cultural brokers" because these influential figures serve as trusted intermediaries for knowledge passed down to those with shared cultural values. Whether these cultural brokers I talk about are trustworthy sources on GMOs is for you to decide. For me, it comes down to the stories they tell (often repeatedly) and when you look closely at some of them, as I have, you may discover that they are just as bogus as that story recently retracted by Rolling Stone. But once you settle on a narrative (as we learned in the case of Rolling Stone), it's very hard to let go.

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