A paper claiming that a diet of genetically modified corn and/or a widely used weed killer increased the likelihood of premature death in rats has received strong criticism in the media despite an attempt by the paper’s authors to prevent reporters from giving it proper scrutiny.

In late September, French scientists published research in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology that described the supposedly deleterious effects of the herbicide Roundup, and corn that has been engineered to be Roundup-tolerant. Access to the embargoed paper prior to publication—a norm in science journalism—came with an unusual condition, however: Journalists had to sign a confidentiality agreement that prevented them from sharing the paper with experts for evaluation, which is the basic reason for having an embargo system in the first place.

Embargo Watch’s Ivan Oransky exposed the shenanigans based on a series of early reports from European news agencies like AFP, Reuters, and the BBC, which mentioned the agreement. But the first two of those outlets, which apparently accepted the French scientists’ terms (the BBC said thanks, but no thanks) caught hell from science journalist Carl Zimmer. On his blog at Discover, The Loom, he wrote:

This is a rancid, corrupt way to report about science. It speaks badly for the scientists involved, but we journalists have to grant that it speaks badly to our profession, too. If someone dangles a press conference in your face but won’t let you do your job properly by talking to other scientists, WALK AWAY. If someone hands you confidentiality agreements to sign, so that you will have no choice but to produce a one-sided article, WALK AWAY. Otherwise, you are being played.

Zimmer’s absolutely right, of course, and those early articles, though not totally uncritical, were among the weakest from the mainstream media. The lack of scrutiny did not endure for long, however. The London-based Science Media Centre, which helps reporters find sources during breaking news events, quickly distributed a list of detailed comments, which many journalists quoted, criticizing the methods and conclusions of the ostensibly “alarming” paper, as the lead author reportedly described it in a conference call with the press.

Discovery News’s Emily Sohn provided what is perhaps the most detailed rundown of the research’s many alleged flaws, which included tumor-prone rats, their unlimited diet, the old age of the rats, the low number of test animals, the even lower number of control animals, and the fact that negative health consequences did not increase in-step with the dose of herbicide or genetically-modified corn, as would be expected. Similarly skeptical articles appeared at The Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, and CBS News. (The New York Times carried an article that mentioned the various criticisms, but buried them at end.)

Coverage was far from perfect, however. Stories from McClatchy, the New York Daily News, and Food Safety News were downright credulous. And, in a sharp analysis for Slate, freelance journalist Keith Kloor called out Mother Jones and Grist for overplaying the study’s conclusions despite acknowledging its shortcomings. Making a keen observation about those outlets’ uneven defense of science, Kloor wrote:

The anti-GM bias also reveals a glaring intellectual inconsistency of the eco-concerned media. When it comes to climate science, for example, Grist and Mother Jones are quick to call out the denialism of pundits and politicians. But when it comes to the science of genetic engineering, writers at these same outlets are quick to seize on pseudoscientific claims, based on the flimsiest of evidence, of cancer-causing, endocrine-disrupting, ecosystem-killing GMOs.

At his New York Times blog, Dot Earth, Andrew Revkin called efforts to tout the paper Food and Chemical Toxicology in defense of anti-GMO positions an example of what he calls “single-study syndrome,” or “the habit of the more aggressive camps of advocates surrounding hot issues (e.g., climate, chemical exposure, fracking) to latch onto and push studies supporting an agenda, no matter how tenuous — or dubious — the research might be.”

It’s an effective tactic and despite critical coverage of the paper, the resarch has had a significant social impact. The Los Angeles Times reported that despite numerous accusations that the research was “seriously flawed,” it “was embraced by opponents of genetically altered foods, including backers of Proposition 37, which if approved by California voters in November would require most foods with genetically modified ingredients to bear a label.” And France’s Prime Minister has ordered a government review of the research, according to ScienceInsider, and will defend his country’s “right within the European Union to ban GM crops” if the results are deemed credible. [Update: According to an October 4 report from AFP, the European Food Safety Authority “said an initial review showed that the ‘design, reporting and analysis of the study … are inadequate,’ meaning it could not ‘regard the authors’ conclusions as scientifically sound.’”]

Those anti-GMO campaigns notwithstanding, most journalists seem to deserve credit for thwarting the devious attempt, feeble though it may have been, to prevent them from doing their jobs.

 

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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.