Each has been the subject of media “attention.” And as the inaccuracies in the statements reveal, articles on each have too often been published without true understanding, knowledge or representation of the complete facts. This may be due to media jumping on a story in order to break it first, as put forth by FoodQualityNews.com (Flawed GM cancer study highlights flawed media approach), or it may be that reporters simply did not have enough knowledge – or desire – to dig further into complete facts.
Or it may simply be a matter of economics: Whether you are a newspaper publisher, a TV executive, a web news provider – or a town crier from days of old, your job is to get people to hear what you say; read what you write simply because that keeps the revenue stream flowing. If that means putting out a bit of hype now and again, well so be it. It’s always been done that way, and I don’t see any major change coming around the bend.
So, what does this mean to you? Plenty.
The Impact of the Media
First is the impact of the media – with media having a much wider definition than it did even just a few years ago, as illustrated by the well-known story – and results – of the “pink slime” debacle. Although she was not the originator of the term, it was a mother’s blog posting of a petition to stop the use of “pink slime” in schools (with an incorrect photo) that led to viral publication by both mainstream and social mediathat led to the eventual closing of the majority of BPI plants.
A controversy that may be a bit less well-known, but is bound to resonate in the GMO industry for a long time, is the recent publication of the French study “Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize,” published in Food and Chemical Toxicology – but now declaimed as flawed. According to the highlights listed in the article: “Female mortality was 2–3 times increased mostly due to large mammary tumors and disabled pituitary. Males had liver congestions, necrosis, severe kidney nephropathies and large palpable tumors.”
Although a Google search now brings up more articles refuting the study than accepting it, the initial headlines focused on the study’s “findings” that the genetically modified corn caused tumors in rats—and there were plenty of photos to “prove” it.
This case was somewhat extreme in that there was little opportunity for an opposing viewpoint in the initial publication, because a media outlet wanting to receive the pre-embargo copy of the study (enabling quick publication when the embargo was lifted), had to agree to not to speak with any independent experts during the embargo. To add to this, not only were the study’s sample sizes exceptionally small and the rats used in the experiment predisposed to tumors, but the scientists would not release data on the methodologies used—a standard in scientific research. However, few of the initial articles focused on any of these shortcomings.
Since that first publication, numerous articles disputing the study have come out, including Monsanto’s response, stating in part:
“This study does not meet minimum acceptable standards for this type of scientific research, the findings are not supported by the data presented, and the conclusions are not relevant for the purpose of safety assessment. … There is no plausible mechanism for the results reported with genetically modified maize, and the results are inconsistent with an extensive body of experience and scientific study.”
But … How many consumers saw the first front-page articles, then never read the less sensational questioning of the study?
And … How many GMO opponents are using statements from the study in their promotion? Many did so immediately, and the study is likely to continue to be cited even once the furor over its authenticity or flaws dies down.
These brief examples raise two important issues. The first is our need to educate the media and the second is to have a plan ready as part of crisis preparation to address inappropriate messages around your products or your brand.
Our Need to Educate
The food industry has a need and responsibility to take a hand in proactively educating the media in order to educate the consumer.
As noted by the viral nature of the mother’s “pink slime” blog (and resulting 258,874 petition signers), the challenge of our world today is the fact that it is a great deal more difficult to define media than it was in the past when one knew the town crier by name, had one local newspaper, or three TV stations. Today, we not only have innumerable cable and satellite TV stations, we have uncountable online websites, news pages and blogs that are written by degreed scientists to agenda-driven espousers – and everyone in between. And all are doing whatever they can to get the public’s eye.
Which means we have no control. Or do we? It is not an easy task to draw attention to reason in place of sensationalism, but we can fight back. In fact, BPI is doing just that with its lawsuit against ABC News. Irrespective of the outcome of this lawsuit it has brought public attention to the other side of the story, and shown that it is not going to accept the media’s right to publish without potential consequence.
And, at least in this case, its publication of reason has gotten attention: a Google search on BPI ABC brought up almost 6.5 million hits, with at least the first 20 pages being articles on the lawsuit.
While some may argue that such a response simply brings the original negative back to consumers’ minds, given the BPI plants that were closed and jobs that were lost; given the persistent anti-GMO marketing efforts; and given, even, the public’s lack of understanding of the nutrition of organic vs. conventionally grown or the food safety of local vs. large-scale farming – Can industry afford to not fight back?
Or, more pragmatically, can we afford to not take the proactive approach and supplant misinformation before it takes hold?
My personal experience with the media is that many in the media strive for an accurate and appropriate story. This cadre of solid food reporters should be encouraged and helped to achieve their goal of appropriate reporting. To this end, the industry could more actively reach out to these key players and help them understand aspects of the food industry when things are going well and before we are all in crisis mode.
When it comes to being prepared as an organization, this is part of good crisis management planning. Be ready with your talking points and experts for when the need arises. Track social media constantly and consider using a team of “Mommy Bloggers” who will be honest in their opinion but are familiar with your products, your philosophy and your goals of constantly producing safe foods.
Today we have to be more vigilant and more aware of media than ever. The power of the media to destroy a brand should never be underestimated, and it is time to recognize this. So establish allegiances, ensure your programs are robust, and manage the media before they manage you.
This post originally appeared October 18, 2012 on the Leavitt Partners’ Food Safety blog.© Food Safety News