The Very Real Danger of Unvetted Journalism

Posted by: Keith Kloor  :  Category: Journalism

Yesterday, I called attention to a deeply flawed article published online by The Atlantic, that used this study as a springboard to raise concerns about GMO foods. Biotechnology, like climate science, is prone to distortion by those who feel passionate about it. The debate on GMO’s and climate change is most heated and misrepresented on blogs where the hosts have staked out a strongly-held position. These sites are the intellectual equivalent of funhouse mirrors, where reality gets absurdly (and often comically) twisted. But when a highly reputable magazine like The Atlantic puts up a muddled piece headlined “The Very Real Danger of Genetically Modified Foods,” you have to wonder if, as Charlie Petit puts it, the magazine is descending “into the hurry-up-and-shock-me world of online journalism.”

Fortunately, there is a countervailing force in the blogosphere, like Charlie’s perch at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, and those of independent blogs, such as The Biology Files, where a detailed critique of the The Atlantic article was posted by Emily Willingham. That said, I agree with this commenter at the Atlantic site, who wrote:

If a journalist doesn’t have expertise in a subject they write about, it’s reasonable to expect that they, or their editor, will run the piece past someone who is knowledgeable about the field, especially when the article relates to human health.
Well, that’s now happening belatedly. Yesterday, the author of the article tweeted that he was “re-writing the piece with corrections.” As the old saying goes, better late than never.

4 Responses to “The Very Real Danger of Unvetted Journalism”

  1. harrywr2 Says:

    But when a highly reputable magazine like The Atlantic
    I think you are associating your opinion of a publication rather then the broader public opinion.
    I could go on for weeks as to how ‘wrong’ the Atlantic is on many national security and geopolitical pieces but why bother, it’s a niche magazine with a niche readership.

  2. jeffn Says:

    I don’t think The Atlantic has a “strongly held” opinion on GM foods, I think it has a strongly-held desire to promote fashionable anti-corporate rants because these resonate with younger activists. And, let’s face it, as the author of the piece noted several times in the comments, the “science” was just a tool for some good old-fashioned Monsanto bashing. In fact, I believe he even called his complete misrepresentation of the science  “irrelevant” to the larger anti-corporate message. This is the GM version of the climate concerned’s favorite saying- “yes, but the latest example of BS doesn’t affect the underlying science.” 
    The fact that magazines and bloggers will abuse “science” to press a weak cause is well known. The fact that you can always find a crusading “scientist” to regurgitate nonsense is well known. It is the reason most people are skeptical of any claim that comes from certain fever swamps of political thought. It’s only recently that the fools have brought more attention to the matter by trying (and failing) to flip the message and have the skeptics labeled anti-science.
    On that note- anyone followed Andy Revkin’s thread on the “crusading’ scientist who authored studies about natural gas fracking that turned out to be… less than accurate. Fun reads.

  3. kdk33 Says:

    Fracking scientists.

  4. Steven Sullivan Says:

    KK, if you think that’s bad, look up some of the junk that the otherwise-reputable Harper’s has published on HIV/AIDS.  At some point one has to wonder if such articles reflect an editor or editors with a pet axe to grind, or if they’re just trying to stir controversy to gain readers.
    #1 harrywr: LOL.  Classic conflation of ‘popularity’ with ‘quality’.  AARP’s magazines top that list. After that, Better Homes and Gardens and Reader’s Digest.  Heck, Atlantic has less readers than People and Maxim and Seventeen too.  Does that suggest those other magazines have a better reputation as sources of news and analysis than The Atlantic?  Hmmmm….no, don’t think so.  Not to mention that AARP is a ‘niche magazine’ for a ‘niche readership’ too — by design.  

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