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'Waiter ... There is a Gene in My Soup!'..
Communicating with the Public, Media and Policymakers on AgBiotech Issues

AgBioView Special, July 30, 2003:

* Safe In The Ivory Tower?
* The Odd Couple: Biotechnology and the Media
* Science Reporters Miss Nuance
* Science Reporting Needs To Consider The Social Context Of Controversy
* Bringing Down The Barriers
* The Science of Working with the News Media
* Newspaper Editor's Advice on Writing Letters
* Language and Persuasion In Biotechnology Communication with The Public
* Bringing Science Communication Into Policy
* Biotech Communications - An Achievable Challenge
* Style and Substance: Communicating Agbiotech
* Educating The European Public About Biotechnology
* Malevolent Metaphors: The Misrepresentation of GM Foodstuffs?
* Training Manual On Effective Writing
Winning Public Confidence - What Can Scientists Do?

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Safe In The Ivory Tower?

- Peggy G. Lemaux,
University of California,
Berkeley, CA 94720.
ASPB News, aspb.org

I was stunned by the message! Yes, I had read that European field tests of genetically engineered plants by large multinational companies were being destroyed by protesters and that farmers' fields in India containing genetically engineered crops were being burned to the ground. But now it had happened in my own backyard! I replayed the message on my answering machine. The disturbed voice of a student repeated that someone had entered fenced, university property where his experimental plants were growing and used machetes to cut his corn plants to the ground.

The perpetrators, or "decontaminators" as referred to themselves, were either unaware or didn't care that the plants they destroyed were not genetically engineered. Although a small percentage of the plants at this university field station were genetically engineered, a part of a National Science Foundation-funded study, the plants that were destroyed had been created by classical breeding. They were an integral part of the graduate student's doctoral thesis and now his research would be delayed an entire year because of the destruction!

Can we as scientists continue to stand by and watch this happen? Can we let misunderstandings about modern plant biology and biotechnology go unchallenged, resulting in painful interruptions in the training of tomorrow's scientists or stopping our own pursuits of fundamental scientific discovery?

Over the years scientists have kept a low public profile, conducting their research within the confines of their laboratories in universities, publishing their research results and rarely communicating with the general public about the implications of their work or its potential risks or rewards to society. Utilizing funding from federal grants was sufficient for most scientists to make a living and to train the next generation of scientists without having to justify or explain what they were doing to the public.

For decades, there was little to draw scientists out to engage in public discussions about their work. Biotechnology, I believe, is changing that situation. Few controversies in biology have caused this level of public debate. In the late 1980's to mid-1990's in the U.S., we saw chefs refusing to serve genetically engineered foods in their restaurants, scientists parading in moon suits in fields containing genetically engineered organisms and parents dumping milk from BGH-treated cows into the streets. During this period here in the U.S., most scientists remained comfortably in their laboratories while these events played out. Those who chose to venture out into the public arena were often misquoted or misrepresented, only serving to drive them further into their "ivory towers".

Do we have the luxury of continuing to stay cloistered within our laboratories? Of course, as scientists, we have a choice but the consequences of that choice are clear. We can stay on the sidelines and hope that someone else takes on the responsibility of defending this discipline. The potential consequence of that choice might be that we lose our ability to engage in scientific discovery using the new genetic tools we helped to develop. Or we can become actively involved, participating in dialogue with public opinion makers, consumers and the press on the technology's risks and benefits in an informed and professional manner. The choice is ours.

Deciding to do the latter is not a trivial commitment. Interacting with the public often requires more skills (and certainly different ones) than we, as scientists, use in our own research. Communicating effectively requires sensitivity to the audience, knowledge of the topic and skill in sculpting answers that are scientifically accurate, lead to minimal misinterpretation and address the concerns of the public. Deciding to become an active player in public dialogue requires a dedication to learning the skills necessary to do so effectively (see below).

If we, as scientists recognize the importance of communicating with the public and make it a priority, I believe that we can make a difference in the debate. If we chose not to engage in this important exercise, we must accept the consequences of remaining in our ivory towers!

The Odd Couple: Biotechnology and the Media

- The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology; http://pewagbiotech.org

It's been said that biotechnology isn't rocket science - it's actually more difficult.

Reporting on biotechnology also poses unique challenges. Because agricultural biotechnology is a controversial and evolving science, the "story" often changes from one week to the next. For example, in the fall of 2000 a paper about biotech corn contaminating the native corn species in Mexico was published in the journal Nature, only to be disavowed by the publication a few months later.

While it's rare for prestigious journals to retract a peer-reviewed article, the situation highlights how difficult it is to produce quality news stories in an environment where science provokes attention from activists and politicians. Making matters more difficult is that biotechnology isn't one clear-cut issue and every new technique and organism presents different scientific and social issues. One thing that everybody agrees on, however, is that the stories must be told.

"This is potentially revolutionary stuff the public has a right and need to know, and the press plays a big role," says Washington Post reporter Marc Kaufman, who has covered the biotechnology beat. "The science is hard, but you can boil it down." He points out that a number of science reporters actually "do a good job."

To most journalists, doing a good job means supplying people with information. But the process of getting information to people is fraught with complications, including how and where stories are told, who is telling them and how the tellers are portrayed.

Among the more intractable issues is how the media balances stories about controversial and complex science. Traditionally, to the media, balance means pitting one voice against another. The problem with that approach is that sometimes a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who bases his or her statements on years of painstaking research can be countered by an activist who may have a strong opinion, but is far less knowledgeable, says Martina Newell-McGloughlin, director of the University of California Systemwide Biotechnology Research and Education Program. Contrasting opposing voices also can tend to emphasize extreme viewpoints rather than more moderate, perhaps less "newsworthy," but nevertheless interesting voices, she adds.

Compounding the problem is the fact that scientists often don't want to comment on hot-button issues. Cory Dean, science editor for the New York Times, points out that many academic researchers are reluctant to speak out because they believe it could jeopardize their chances for tenure if their superiors consider press coverage as self-promotion.

In addition, some researchers are reluctant to speak with the press because they fear being misquoted or having what they say taken out of context. Nevertheless, it's imperative that they do, says Newell-McGloughlin. "We can't not speak," she says. "We can't take the position 'We're the experts: trust us.' That's patronizing." Newell-McGloughlin also acknowledges that activists do play an important role in the media process. "There's quite a lot of very good questions that need to be answered," she says.

Another facet in the debate over whether "the media" adequately cover biotechnology is the fact that the media itself is not monolithic. Media coverage varies widely from television to magazines to newspapers to the Internet. Even within individual media forms, such as newspapers, biotech stories may be presented in a spectrum ranging from short non-bylined news pieces to long, exhaustive series that include graphics and explanatory sidebar stories. Radio and television also handle science stories with varying degrees of thoroughness.

"Some of the best science reporting being done today is on television," says Alex Jones, Director of Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy. "It's on programs like NOVA, not the local or national news. Television news just doesn't have the time or is unwilling to devote the resources needed to cover science well."

And that is a problem, Jones says, because most people get their news from TV. "There has been a proliferation of quasi-reporting on local news via video news releases that are usually produced by major drug companies [and amount to little more than a commercial]," Jones says. "Television has a huge potential for reporting science, but the medium is easy to abuse."

He notes the Internet is a powerful source for science reporting and exchange of information, but it has no quality control so people searching for science information need to be wary.

And while it's difficult to generalize about "the media," there do appear to be some biotechnology coverage differences between the U.S. and European outlets, says Newell-McGloughlin (who is originally from Ireland).

In Europe, she says, the tabloids are seen as a primary news source by a large part of the public, instead of as secondary, more sensationalistic outlets, as they are generally viewed in the U.S. As a result, the majority of written news coverage of biotechnology in the U.S. tends to come from higher-quality publications and is more balanced, she says.

Others aren't quite so sure, however, and say the U.S. media has tipped too far in favor of the biotechnologists. "The bottom line is that the voices promoting (biotechnology) are more prominent than those that object," says Susanna Priest, who monitors media coverage of biotechnology at Texas A&M University. Her finding contradicts an assumption by many scientists that activists get more play than scientists, she says. "It's really about trust in institutions," Priest notes. "The U.S. has an enormous faith in industry, but not in environmental groups."

Priest believes the reason that environmental concerns in Europe are voiced louder than in the U.S. is that Americans place more trust in institutions like government, regulators and industry. Europeans, on the other hand, have lived through a number of food crises and tend to have less faith in regulators, she notes.

There is also a tendency for some media, and those involved in these issues, to cast players in over-simplified roles, says Priest. For instance, some scientists insist that the only people who object to biotech are those who are not informed about science. Priest says her studies indicated even knowledgeable people sometimes raise concerns about the technology.

Another difference in biotechnology coverage in America, according to Newell-McGloughlin is how medical biotechnology stories are told, versus agricultural biotechnology. "Medical science stories are covered in terms of hope, while quite often food is covered in terms of warning," she says.

That difference points to the key to what gets a story printed or broadcast in the first place: telling a story that interests the public. Bill Lambrecht, a reporter for the St. Louis Post Dispatch and author of the book Dining at The New Gene Café, says that's the yardstick against which every story is measured, and lately very few biotechnology stories make the cut.

"After 9/11, genetically-modified organisms became one of those many issues that was submerged," says Lambrecht. It's not just that terrorism and international politics are taking up the space on pages and airtime on radio and television, he says. "I think that in the aftermath, the public went through a redefinition of risk. A lot of people have only so much capacity for concern over the threats that are out there. Many lesser threats have diminished in the minds of people."

Still, the Post's Kaufman believes the issues are important enough that the stories will still be told. And, for better or worse, the media is how most people get their information. As a result, he believes the media shoulders a great responsibility for getting those stories out.

For more information, please visit Nature; the The Washington Post; theThe New York Times; the St. Louis Post Dispatch; and The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology online.

'Does the Popular Media Adequately Cover Highly Polarized Scientific Issues?'

Science Reporters Miss Nuance

- Jim Aidala, President, AgroChemical/Biotech, JSC, Inc.

Does the media adequately cover science? Jim Aidala has a one-word answer: No. Aidala, a former Environmental Protection Agency Assistant Administrator believes there are two reasons the media is currently failing the public. "First, the media has a strong desire to get the 'other side of the story' even though it may not represent the thinking of most people in the scientific field," Aidala says.

The inclination to present conflicting sides of an issue makes great copy, Aidala notes, but it can muddy rather than clarify an issue. He points out that this is a particular problem when reporters look for a counter opinion for scientific elements of a controversy - some of which have risen to the level of consensus. In those cases, you can end up with a number of well-informed, well-regarded scientists being countered by a communications spokesperson for an activist group, he says. "In some ways, it's an easy and lazy way to cover a controversial story."

But, Aidala sees an even more important reason why scientific controversies get short shrift in the modern media: scientific controversies are rarely just about science.

"The most tricky science questions have a lot of nuance - a lot of which isn't strictly scientific," Aidala notes. "If there are 15 key things in a given controversy, it is difficult to reflect all that complicated reality into a 10 column inch story or 2 minute news piece."

"When I hear the words 'scientific controversy,' I automatically think there is some kind of policy implication for a particular scientific finding," Aidala says. "In other words, people are seeing some finding as relevant to their lives. And there are human judgments involved in figuring out what to do about that finding."

The problem is, Aidala notes, most reporters don't understand what goes into making those human judgments and, as a result, don't adequately convey those realities to the public.

"For many important health issues the whole concept of risk is lost in the story because journalists often didn't pay attention in their statistics class," Aidala notes. "To me, that is one of the underlying reasons why scientific controversy is so poorly covered in the media. Tough science issues are difficult to understand and many reporters are ill-equipped to translate these stories into the modern media format."

Aidala admits that this problem is abating as more specialized journalism programs have been established. Unfortunately, these specialized programs don't solve the problem because many scientific controversies contain considerable political elements that remain unreported.

"Scientific journalists may feel they are on safer turf or are more personally interested in the science of the story," Aidala says. "One of the really interesting things about regulating science-based issues [as opposed to some other issues] is the extent to which Congress dumps these problems in the lap of the bureaucracy. That is a story which is rarely covered."

Science Reporting Needs To Consider The Social Context Of Controversy

By Sheila Jasanoff , Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government

When Sheila Jasanoff considers whether modern media are equipped to handle scientific controversy, she finds herself first considering the definition of a scientific controversy.

"I believe there is a difference between a scientific controversy which occurs in the lab among active scientists in a particular field and a social controversy with substantial scientific content," Jasanoff says. "If we are really considering a social controversy with scientific content, then the scientific dispute is often the surrogate for controversy over socially relevant and deep-seated value differences."

The inherent problem, as Jasanoff sees it, is that media reporting tends to present a distorted image of science. "These 'scientific controversies' are often reported as binary problems and that oversimplifies what are usually very complex situations," she points out.

By focusing on one part of the problem - the scientific content of an issue such as genetically modified foods, reporters end up ignoring a host of socially important aspects, such as intellectual property protections, wealth and knowledge disparities, and the ethics of the technology. As a result, many of these important facets of the debate aren't adequately reflected in the media.

In addition, she sees the media convention of providing two opposing views - often times presenting them with equal weight - as a disservice to the public. "I believe that the media has improved," she notes. "And, that much more is being done to show the full range of opinions and where they are coming from, but there is still more that could be done."

Jasanoff also notes that Americans tend to be skeptical about experts and often don't trust them to analyze data without bias. Jasanoff believes that by ignoring the complexities of many so-called scientific debates, modern media deprive the public of the total context in which science is produced, exacerbating the public's general skepticism.

Jasanoff notes that science has become important enough that people study the scientific enterprise itself. She thinks that reporters should look to the people who study the social and historical aspects of science to provide a more comprehensive picture of the issues at stake in a so-called scientific controversy.

"In any area of science there is a diversity of scientific practice and standards that change over time," she notes. "Even the most eminent scientists will tell you that their findings are always provisional. For reporters to lose sight of this does a real disservice and overlooks the infinitely rich and very human context in which science is done."

Bringing Down The Barriers
'Public communication should be part of common scientific practice.'

Nature 422, 470
By Jaap Willems
April 3, 2003

The public is fascinated by science, particularly astronomy. But despite most researchers recognizing the necessity of communicating to the public, many of them fail to do so. Although the media is the main source of scientific information for most people, scientists throw up barriers to their work being publicized. Scientists need to popularize their subject as, sooner or later, society will have to deal with the results. Not only do people need to keep up to date with rapidly changing knowledge, but ignorance often leads to fear.

Although some scientists accept that the public must be kept informed and interested if they are to obtain funding, many are puzzled by the suggestion that the popularization of, for example, chemistry is important for creating public support. Surely science no longer needs to justify itself, they ask? Furthermore, many researchers would -- quite wrongly -- treat with derision the idea that scientists need to popularize their work if they are to reach fellow professionals in their own or related fields. Yet various surveys have revealed that communication between fellow professionals often takes place through the mass media.

Most public communication about science is channelled through daily newspapers, special-interest magazines and television. In the Netherlands, articles written by researchers themselves are occasionally published in newspapers or in popular science magazines such as Natuur & Techniek and Greenpeace. (!!) However, about 90% of these articles are written by science journalists, most of whom do not have scientific qualifications. And according to surveys in the Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom, the public is dissatisfied with the media's reporting of innovations in science and technology. Media reports can heighten public fear of certain areas, for example biotechnology, according to Eurobarometer (http://europa.eu.int/comm/public_opinion).

A different approach is needed. Science communication professionals have long advocated a shift from the one-way channel of the mass media, towards interactivity -- science and discovery centres, public lectures and company or institution open days -- to bring researchers into direct contact with the general public. If nothing else, the resultant dialogue is a useful addition to media reporting in conveying accurate information and reducing fear of new technologies.

But scientists must also find ways of improving communication through the media, as this is familiar to many and is the most efficient way to reach large numbers of people. Yet our survey (see footnote) reveals barriers to such communication, such as unreasonable demands from researchers that journalists' reporting must be full and complete, or the lack of appropriate expertise by journalists -- ignorance of basic technical terms, or a desire to sensationalize or exaggerate the discovery.

Management and public-relations (PR) departments frequently block contacts between scientists and the media. Our survey indicates that only one-third of researchers in the Netherlands can decide what they tell journalists. The rest have to defer to managers and PR departments, even in universities. The PR department initiates contact with the press. Of course, PR officials have a better understanding of the media and more contacts than scientists. Nevertheless, many Dutch scientists do not want to help PR departments popularize their research as they would prefer to do it themselves.

PR officials, of course, are usually only interested in good news about the research in their institutions. Journalists are more interested in bad news (such as risks associated with genetic modification) and would prefer to publicize details before the full work is published in scientific literature. These separate, selective agendas provide further barriers to the communication of science.

That 90% of scientists in our survey believe that a journalist's reporting should be full and complete, and the journalists should allow the scientists to check their story and make requested changes before publication betrays an ignorance of journalistic methods. As journalists would naturally not agree to these conditions, scientists are very reticent about cooperating with the press. Virtually none of our respondents knew the names of the science editors of the major Dutch quality newspapers, many of whom have been writing about science for years.

Finally, almost half of our respondents had never written an article for a wider general readership, while a further 40% did so only very rarely. Only 10% regularly write articles about their own speciality for a general readership, a fraction that included a disproportionate number of ecologists writing about environmental issues. Although not every scientist can be expected to write popular and/or accessible articles about their work regularly, and the media could not handle the resultant volume of material, the fact that so few biologists take an active part in popularizing their work highlights, once again, their lack of interest in public communication.

Many scientists, used to writing scientific articles, lack the rather different writing skills needed to bring their work to a wider audience. In addition to this, many feel that popularization would reduce their status among their peers. Yet almost every university offers courses in science communication, and although scientists go on these courses, they are generally regarded as being on the margins of university education.

If we truly want the media to expand and improve its coverage of science and technology, more researchers need training in public communication and must be prepared to use these skills by participating in public events, writing popular, accessible articles, and cooperating constructively with science journalists.

Jaap Willems is in the Department of Science Communication, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, 1081 HV, The Netherlands. Further information available in Biologen en Journalisten (Biologists and Journalists) by Jaap Willems, Betteke van Ruler, Linda Hartman and Neil van der Veer (Enschede, Amsterdam, 2002). See also http://www.bio.vu.nl/WillemsinNature.pdf.

The Science of Working with the News Media

ASPB News,
Jan- Feb 2003;

The prospect of talking with journalists can be somewhat daunting for scientists, just as it is for many people in all other walks of life. However, scientists and reporters have more in common than some people may realize.

As Terri Lomax explained at an ASPB media workshop sponsored by the Committee on Public Affairs last summer in Denver, traits often found in both scientists and journalists include free and independent thinking, competitive natures, and curiosity as well as higher levels of education.

Botany and plant pathology professor at Oregon State University, Lomax is now directing a public education program on biotechnology with the support of the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences. Lomax notes that working with the media is key to communicating with the public and believes that some advance preparation can help the media contact go more smoothly.

She said that in preparing for an interview, a scientist should learn more about the reporter, the publication, and the readership. A scientist needs to have a goal in mind for the interview and deliver a focused message. Advance practice in answering expected potential questions can contribute to more accurate and confident answers during the actual interview.

If the reporter attempts to divert a scientist from the point or poses a hypothetical question, it's important for the scientist to stay on message and politely transition back to the relevant points the scientist wants to make. "As Secretary of State Colin Powell said, 'Remember, they [reporters] get to ask the questions, but you get to give the answers,' " Lomax remarked.

Lomax worked tirelessly throughout the summer and early fall to educate the media and the public about the effects that Oregon ballot issue Measure 27 could have on consumers and producers. Measure 27 would have required mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods in Oregon. Peggy Lemaux, then chair of the ASPB Committee on Public Affairs, coordinated the media workshop. Lemaux is Cooperative Extension Specialist at the University of California at Berkeley. She promotes public understanding of biotechnology through an active outreach program.

Lemaux said responding to calls from journalists merits top priority. "I will drop everything to talk to the press," Lemaux said. She noted that too often, the media use misleading terminology such as "Franken-food" and "killer corn." Scientists need to use more accurate terminology in discussing genetically modified foods and should not repeat misleading terms if they are used by a reporter in a question.

Denver Post science writer Diedtra Henderson told ASPB members at the workshop that they need to convey their key points to the journalist. Scientists should be able to answer questions on their research such as, "What does it matter?" Scientists need to convey to the reporter what the relevance of their research is to the public. Henderson implied that this should not be difficult to do, because people have a lifelong interest in science.

In talking to a journalist, scientists should speak as if they are speaking to a friend, Henderson advised. However, it is important to know that information from the scientist is generally not considered off the record if the off-the-record request is made subsequent to the scientist's actual comment. Off-the-record comment agreements between scientists and journalists need to be agreed to by both parties in advance of the comment being made by the scientist. Some media relations advisers also warn that if you don't want to see a comment to a reporter in print, it is best to simply not make the comment.

Alan McHughen, biotechnology specialist/geneticist, University of California, Riverside, related some of his experiences in working with the media. Author of Pandora's Picnic Basket: The Potential and Hazards of Genetically Modified Foods, McHughen interacts frequently with the media. McHughen said a survey seeking public views on the credibility of different sources found that Americans have considerable respect for scientists and family physicians. "However, don't assume that you'll always have this. Don't be arrogant," he advised.

Writing letters to the editor to cite a need for corrections in a science story is one of the ways that McHughen has found effective for getting to know journalists. He said that although his letter might not get published, it is likely the editor will have the reporter call him to clarify any facts in dispute noted in the letter. At that point, a contact is made and McHughen can be identified by the writer as a valuable source in a particular subject area, such as genetic modification of foods.

When writing an op-ed piece for a newspaper, the scientist has a larger word count to work with than for a letter to the editor. You can "let yourself go a little bit" in delivering your message, McHughen noted.

Accessing the Media and Congress - Newspaper Editor's Advice on Writing Letters
to the Editor and Meeting with Newspaper Editorial Boards


Writing Letters to the Editor

Lynnell Burkett, Editorial Page Editor of the San Antonio Express-News explains that the Express-News, one of the larger metropolitan daily newspapers in the nation with a daily circulation of nearly 200,000 (nearly 300,000 on Sundays), prints only about one of every five letters to the editor it receives. However, writers can obtain a success rate much better than 20 percent in getting their letters from pen to newspaper page if they follow a few simple guidelines.

Maximum Number of Words

Newspapers impose a maximum number of words limit on the letters they publish on editorial pages. For the Express-News, the limit is 250 words per letter. Many letters never get published, simply because the writer did not adhere to the limit on number of words. A maximum of 250 words is in the range of what many other newspapers follow. Longer op-ed commentaries can range from 450 to 1,000 words for different newspapers.

To find out the limit for your newspaper, simply call the newspaper's phone number listed in the local public telephone directory and ask for the maximum number of words accepted for letters to the editor or for op-ed commentaries. (Op-ed stands for opposite the editorial page. Many newspapers have an op-ed page immediately following and facing the page that has the editorials and letters to the editor.)

Include Your Address and Telephone Number

If you don't include your address and telephone number, don't expect to see your letter to the editor or longer, op-ed commentary printed. The San Antonio Express-News and many other newspapers don't publish your address and daytime phone number with the letter, but they need this information to contact writers for confirmation. "So don't send a letter before heading off for a three-week vacation," Burkett advised at a past ASPB Public Affairs workshop. Writers generally don't hear whether their letters are selected until at least a few days after it is received by the newspaper.

Handwrite Your Name

Remember to include your signature in ink at the bottom of your letter. Letters that request use of initials only are not published. The theory is that individuals should take responsibility for their opinions.

Make it Readable

If editors can't decipher the handwriting in the body of the letter, they can't publish it. Typewritten or computer-generated letters avoid this problem.

Stick to One Major Point

If you are writing a letter about support for plant research, don't digress into other topics. Editors are looking for letters on one particular subject.

Assume Some Degree of "Goodwill"

"We are not perfect, and try as we might, we will, on occasion, write a misleading headline, leave out a word or cut a sentence in your favor. It is not a plot. We are not out to sabotage you or your letter. We did not treat your letter with disrespect because we disagreed with it. We have, I assure you, been charged with all of the above," Burkett said.

Members of Congress Read Local Editorial Pages

A letter to the editor of your local daily and weekly newspapers can be of more interest to your members of Congress than letters to national newspapers. Burkett pointed out that a U.S. Senator from Texas responded directly to the Express-News the same day a letter to the editor referring to the Senator was published in the newspaper. In comparison, a national newspaper like The New York Times does not have circulation among voters in Congressional districts outside New York that even approaches the size of the circulation of most local newspapers. It is also generally more difficult to get a letter published in a national newspaper. Keep an emphasis on your local newspapers.

Interacting with Editorial Boards

Just the thought of attempting to schedule a meeting with the editorial board of the local newspaper can be intimidating to many people. Burkett said she has observed the intimidating effect editorial board meetings have on many people. Some groups of individuals walk into these meetings treating them as pressure-packed events where each participant must speak in a particular order and say only a few words. Some people find even approaching editorial boards so daunting that they hire public relations firms to set up the meetings. It is better to relax and aim for a normal conversation flow with the newspaper editorial board.

To arrange the meeting, call up the editorial page editor, explain briefly the topic you'd like to discuss, the name of the colleague(s) who will accompany you and ask for an appointment. The editorial board meeting might include simply an editorial page editor and the reporter who covers your area. Although you probably won't walk out of the meeting with a commitment for a lead editorial supporting your views, you'll have provided an important perspective for the editorial and science writers to consider the next time they do write on a topic affecting science. You also will have established a line of communication with the local science writer and your editorial page editor which could lead to future interaction. You may find that you are one of very few scientists from any discipline who has met with your newspaper editorial board.

Contact ASPB

The ASPB Committee on Public Affairs members and ASPB staff are working to bring more information on plant research to the editorial pages of daily and weekly newspapers. If you have questions on writing letters to the editor, please send an e-mail message to bhyps@aspb.org.

As Burkett observed, "I'm convinced letters are one of the best-read and most worthwhile features. Nowhere are we more closely connected to our readers."

Language and Persuasion In Biotechnology Communication with The Public:
How To Not Say What You're Not Going To Not Say And Not Say It

- Steven B. Katz , North Carolina State University; (Excerpts Below)

The purpose of this paper is to begin to explore the role of language in biotechnology communication with the public by briefly analyzing in a particular press release how organization, style, and diction convey values and emotions that can undermine intended meaning. These are not problems of grammar or usage or mechanics or spelling, commonly associated with "bad writing." Nor are these simply problems of clarity or logic. Rather, these communication problems are the result of rhetorical choices of organization, style, and/or diction that are ultimately based on unconscious and often flawed assumptions about the role of language, values, and emotion in communication and decision-making.

While there are differences between other controversies and those surrounding the acceptance of agricultural biotechnology by consumers here and abroad, the general parameters of these controversies can reveal deep-seated assumptions, as well as the pitfalls of communication with the public. One almost universal feature is the public fear of possible long term and as yet unknown risks to health and the environment that no amount of scientific assurance seems able to assuage. Despite statements to the contrary by researchers and officials, the public by and large perceives decisions to be based as much on politics as science. The public questions the role of industry in the decision making as a conflict of interest. And organized protests, disruptions of meetings, threats of violence, and damage to equipment sometimes ensue.

For their part, researchers attempt to provide the public with clear, up-to-date information, and to explain the scientific logic of their reasoning. Government agencies attempt to deal with the crisis in public confidence by developing expensive public information and education campaigns. But these usually are massive failures. In the face of seemingly insurmountable resistance, early optimism on the part of scientists and public officials gives way to incredulity, outrage, and contempt for the public that now appears ill informed and unreasonable (Katz & Miller, 1996).

A press release delivered before the National Press Club by former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman (1999) noted similar public reaction to the issue of genetically modified foods (GMFs): a fear of possible and as yet unknown long term risks to health and the environment; a distrust of the decision-making process that consumers see as much political and economic as scientific; and a distrust in the role of industry in developing biotechnology and assessing its safety. The speech also noted "great consumer resistance and cynicism toward biotechnology," protests, and violence and damage to test plots overseas. To attempt to deal with these issues, the Secretary proposed five principles, including "complete and open public involvement; the establishment of 'regional centers' around the country;" and "a strong public education effort to show consumers the benefits of these products and why they are safe." Despite public resistance, the speech attempted to express great optimism not only in biotechnology, but also its acceptance. "We have to ensure public confidence in general, consumer confidence in particularS?I believe farmers and consumers will eventually come to see the economic, environmental, and health benefits of biotechnology products".

Bringing Science Communication Into Policy

- David Dickson, SciDev.Net, Feb 17, 2003

Science communication has become a major factor in the formulation of policy on science-related issues, not just a commentary on the way such issues are addressed.

One of the most significant images in UK debates over the past 20 years about the relationship between science and society was a photograph taken in May 1990 of Britain's then agriculture minister, John Gummer, feeding a hamburger to his somewhat bemused and reluctant daughter, Cordelia.

The country was at the time in the midst of its crisis over so-called Mad Cow Disease, but the government -- prompted by the farming industry -- was insisting that there was no way that the disease could pass to humans. The photograph encapsulated the headlines that went with it, indicating that a government minister was so confident about this position that, even as a responsible parent, he was prepared feed British beef to his daughter.

The rest, as they say, is history. It was not long before Gummer, and indeed the whole of the British government, had to eat its words -- almost literally -- and admit that they had got it wrong; BSE indeed can pass into the food chain, with tragic consequences. Furthermore this particular picture has come to haunt Gummer -- who ironically has a good record as an effective defender of the environment -- the Conservative party and government public relations officers ever since.

With the benefit of hindsight, the manipulation is obvious. We are now well aware of the function of this image as well as the dubious claim to scientific legitimacy on which it was intended to be based. Indeed the subsequent realisation by the British public of the extent to which it had been misled by this particular picture, and indeed the whole government handling of the BSE debacle in Britain, is widely blamed for a significant drop in the public's trust of both politicians and the scientists who advise them.

But the picture also highlights a critical issue about the way that the media frames, and thus helps to mould, public perceptions of key issues at the interface between science and society. The issue for those involved in science communication, both in developed and developing countries, is how to balance a desire to inform the public about the scientific perspective on controversial issues -- such as BSE or genetically-modified crops -- with an awareness of the political interests that may lie on each side of such a dispute.

The challenge for society more generally is to recognise that the practice of science communication has become a significant participant in the formulation of policy on science-related issues, and no longer merely provides a commentary on the way such issues are addressed.

Beyond the respect for truth. At its crudest level, of course, science communication must be concerned with the accurate transmission of information. This includes not only communicating the facts produced by science, but equally reporting as accurately as possible on the uncertainties attached to such knowledge, as well as on the impacts of science on society -- and society's response to such impacts. All this is relatively conventional wisdom with the science communication community, even if it acknowledges a truth -- that achieving a proper public understanding of science is a two-way process that must include the scientist's better understanding of the public -- that is only just being recognised within the scientific community itself.

To quote the words of Alan I. Leshner, for example, the chief executive office of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, writing in a recent issue of Science: "We need to engage the public in a more open and honest, bi-directional dialogue about science, technology and their products, including not only their benefits but also their limits, perils and pitfalls. We need to respect the public's perspective and concerns, even when we do not fully share them, and we need to develop a partnership that can respond to them."

But there is a need to go beyond this, and to inquire how the process of developing a partnership with the public works in practice, and who will be engaged in establishing it. Here it is necessary to acknowledge that the role of the science communicator, as Leshner accepts, is not one of simply conveying the 'truth' to the public (any more than the role of a scientist can be defined simply as discovering scientific 'facts'). Rather it is to communicate significant facts -- and, where space allows, the nature of this significance.

In other words, the task of any science communicator is essentially one of extracting significance from a mass of scientific evidence, policy documents, and headline-grabbing statements from individuals and institutions that may or may not have a vested interested in the outcome. In doing this, I suggest, those engaged in the communication of science -- particularly when this is conceived of as a two-way process -- becomes proxies for the public when it comes to interpreting and articulating the relationship between science and society, or to put it another way, between knowledge and power.

Science communication and policy-making. The terms 'interpreting' and 'articulating' are both somewhat abstract concepts. They imply that the way the media handles science has actually become an important constitutive component of the policy-making process on science-related issues. The media does more than just report policy choices to the public on such issues, or even on the responses of the public to the policy choices they are being presented with. In a significant way the media also helps to frame both the policy issues and the public responses to them.

This is illustrated by the intense debates taking place in the developing world over topics such as GM crops or even 'biopiracy', itself a term largely coined by those who might be described as communicators of science. In each case, the way that such issues are presented to the public becomes the way that the issues are seen by the public. And these perceptions in turn become a major factor in political decision-making, particularly in an era when mass communication has made every decision taken by a politician the subject of close public scrutiny.

The full implications of this shift remain far from clear. Nevertheless it is already possible to suggest that informed communication about science must become a central component of development strategy. Without such communication, trust in political decisions on science-related issues will be gradually dissipated. With such communication there is no guarantee that this trust will necessarily be maintained. But at least the basis will have been laid on which such trust can be rebuilt.


This comment is based on a talk delivered to the annual meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science on 17 February 2003 in Denver Colorado.

Biotechnology Communications - An Achievable Challenge

International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications
Dec 7, 2001

For people in Asia - whether they are wheat farmers on the Ganges Plain of India, rice farmers on the terraces of Bali, cotton growers in China or inhabitants of fast-paced cities like Singapore or Tokyo - the implications of biotechnology will be significant.

Biotechnology is not seen as a panacea for all the region's food production problems -the supply of food is a complex process, and biotechnology offers one part of a multi-faceted strategy to meet the growing demands for more and better quality foods. Nevertheless, biotechnology does offer the potential for better crop yields, reduced use of chemical inputs, less environmental degradation, as well as the development of innovative food products, such as foods with improved nutritional value or better food quality and safety.

However, stakeholders in this new and rapidly evolving area of science and technology often feel poorly equipped to deal with the new language, scientific principles and understanding required of them. There is a clear need for more educational resources on this important topic area.

That is why the Asian Food Information Centre (AFIC) and the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) have joined together to develop Food Biotechnology: a Communications Guide to Enhance Understanding, which has been developed specifically for the Asia Pacific region.

The Guide is intended to provide leaders in the scientific, medical, food and agricultural communities and educators involved in these areas, with an essential resource kit. The kit is designed to provide the most scientifically sound and up-to-date information about biotechnology products and processes and most importantly guidelines on biotechnology communications.

For example, research has demonstrated that the use of very technical language, although accurate, can confuse and even alarm non-scientists, evoking negative reactions. Food biotechnology needs to be discussed in everyday terms. It is important for people to understand that the technology is about seeds that are planted in the ground and that that grow into plants just like any other plants. If normal everyday language is not used it sends the message that the technology is about experiments undertaken just in the laboratory and it gives a false impression of food biotechnology.

The understanding and acceptance of any science or technology including food biotechnology can change dramatically depending upon the language used. The preferred scientific term for defining "recombinant DNA technology" is biotechnology or green technology. In many Asian countries, the most readily understandable terms include food biotechnology or genetically modified foods. Abbreviations such as "GM food" or GMOs are perceived as jargon. Such terminology may lead to confusion, miscommunication and even misinterpretation of the topic and related issues.

The Guide aims to raise awareness of this communications issue, and provides lots of practical advice and resources to overcome this problem. For example the Guide includes lists of "Words to use" and "Words to lose" , and a slide presentation which may be adapted according to audience needs and interests.

The Guide also provides: historical development and context of food biotechnology developments; definitions of key terms such as allergenic proteins, genomes; brief explanations of fundamental principles of food biotechnology such as substantial equivalence, safety assessment - an extensive directory of resources and sources of further country and topic-specific information - a collection of quotes by prominent leaders and scientists on the current and potential impact of food biotechnology.

The Guide may be downloaded from the AFIC or at http://www.isaaa.org. It is also available as a CD-ROM on request..

Style and Substance: Communicating Agbiotech

AgBiotech Bulletin & Infosource Vol 9, Issue 1
Feb. 2001

On one side, we have children in Monarch butterfly costumes accompanied by activists with a shaky premise; on the other, a scientist with charts, graphs and a compelling body of evidence. In the age of the 10-second sound bite, who wins?

According to rhetorician Dr. Jennifer MacLennan, the contest isn't even close. "There was a time when people trusted science," she says. "Now there is suspicion, as ethical questions aren't being dealt with, or even taken seriously."

The Rhetoric of Fear Anti-biotech activists have tapped into a powerful rhetoric as old as Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein - the scientist arrogantly pursuing forbidden knowledge, playing God, and paying the ultimate price for his hubris. The plot line is still popular in horror movies today.Add to this modern scientific and regulatory disasters like thalidomide and mad cow disease, plus actors in lab coats hawking everything from soap to diet supplements, and you have a profoundly skeptical public.

"We don't trust the science because we can't trust what the marketers do with the science," MacLennan says. According to MacLennan, who holds the D.K. Seaman Chair in Technical and Professional Communications at the University of Saskatchewan's College of Engineering, facts by themselves don't persuade. This is because the average person doesn't have the skill or knowledge base to know if the facts are true. People may insist they make decisions based on logic but they really listen to their gut - which reacts to emotion. And with emotion, the kid in the butterfly suit trumps the scientist behind a microphone every time.

"It's a far more complicated question than 'what are the lab results'," MacLennan says. "The very nature of science is that the last word is never in, but we must act as though it is." She warns that while the public may be unsophisticated in their knowledge, they are extremely sensitive to attempts to manipulate their opinion. "Attention has to be paid to reassuring people on the level where they're hurting. More spin doctoring won't work."

Understanding versus Persuasion This idea is consistent with public relations theory, in particular, a model described as "two way symmetrical communication" by James Grunig in the seminal public relations work, Excellence in Public Relations & Communication Management. In this model, the goal is not selling or persuading, but understanding - a dialogue.

"The public should be just as likely to persuade the organization's management to change attitudes or behavior as the organization is likely to change the publics' attitudes or behavior," Grunig writes. This model is held up as the most preferred way to do public relations. Research shows organizations that use this model enjoy success in the public arena as well as at the bottom line.

An Industry Response According to Ray Mowling, information, not advocacy, is the aim of the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI). Its goal is to reach opinion leaders and food shoppers with the "other side of the story" about biotech.

The CBI is pro-biotech, stressing the benefits of the technology. This is done through advertising in print and on television, a Web site, information packages, and support for other similarly minded organizations. CBI advertisements started running in Canada last May, as part of a three to five year campaign. Similar efforts are underway in the U.S. and Mexico. Mowling presented some initial materials and preliminary results at the Ag-West Biotech Annual General Meeting last October. Campaign tracking has already yielded information on what does and doesn't work.

"For the opinion leaders, people want and are looking for more detailed information," Mowling says. "The consumer profile is different. Some people don't want information; they just want to hear from a trusted authority that what they're eating is safe." The overall aim is to create a receptive environment for biotechnology. Mowling cites educational efforts like the demonstration lab at the Saskatchewan Agricultural Biotechnology Information Centre (SABIC), and the demonstration farm run by the Centre for Safe Food at the University of Guelph as examples. "If we don't have that positive environment, we're not going to get an opportunity to grow and improve the technology," he says. Scientists as Communicators Another initiative is aimed at the people who know the technology best: scientists. Michael Bechtel, Manager of the Agricultural Biotechnology Initiative (abi) at the University of Saskatchewan, helps train scientists to speak to non-technical audiences and the media.

"The language of biotech, the language of science, is not the Queen's English as most know it," he says. "Most scientists are not aware they are speaking in a language different than everyone else." Bechtel explains that before biotechnology came along, people didn't think too much about crop farming. If they thought about it at all, they trusted the plant breeders and regulators to do their jobs. A new variable is the anti-biotech movement - people that simply don't trust the technology for whatever reason. These groups don't necessarily know any more about biotech, but spread fear. This doesn't automatically reflect the general public view.

"The general public doesn't understand the technology," Bechtel says. "What we need is to give an honest translation of the information so everyone can understand what's going on." "It's not necessarily that they're afraid of it. They don't understand it."

The overall mandate of abi is to help scientists take their ideas from the lab to the market. Bechtel says that after extensive consultation with the research community, effective communication was identified as one of the most urgent needs. Courses were developed to give scientists hands-on training in speaking with the media, managing issues, and communicating in a crisis. The courses are designed for small to medium sized companies - less than 50 employees. This reflects the character of Saskatchewan's biotech community and about 80 per cent of the industry as a whole. However, Bechtel reports people have come from as far away as Alberta and Ontario to take advantage of abi, and inquiries have come from the U.S., southeast Asia and India. So far, about 75 people have taken the courses.

The ultimate aim is not propaganda, or even persuasion. It's making sure the correct information is heard, so people can make informed decisions. "We have to be perceived as balanced and non-prejudicial, presenting the information in a fair and balanced manner," Bechtel says. "That's what we're trying to achieve."

(Resources: The Council for Biotechnology Information at http://whybiotech.com; The Agricultural Biotechnology Initiative at http://www.abi.usask.ca, Dr. Jennifer MacLennan at maclenna@engr.usask.ca, The Centre for Safe Food at http://www.plant.uoguelph.ca/safefood and Excellence in Public Relations & Communication Management, James E. Grunig [contributor and editor].)

Educating The European Public About Biotechnology

Agbiotech Bulletin Volume 9, Issue 4,
May, 2001 Ag-West Biotech Inc.;

Some ways of teaching biotechnology are clearly more effective than others. But given the diversity among people, particularly when we consider the geographic expanse and the cultural and political differences across Europe, is it realistic to think that we can develop a short list of techniques that will work best for everyone? This is the challenge faced by a network of about twenty people who are working on a project called: Educating the European Public about Biotechnology. The project was initiated a year ago with funding from the European Commission. The goal is to document what is being done in each member country and what information is available to the public from all sources. Then the group is to recommend what works best to educate people about biotechnology. I was fortunate to be able to attend their latest meeting and provide them with specific information about Ag-West Biotech's activities and a general idea of what resources are available about biotechnology in Canada from various sources.

The group itself is quite diverse. Several are researchers associated with universities and affiliated with departments ranging from ethnology to microbiology; sociology to biotechnology. Others are regulatory, communications or technology transfer specialists; one is a publisher and two are high school teachers. Drawn together by a common vision of the positive potential of biotechnology, and a hope that the acceptance of biotechnology could be increased through educating the public, this group met in Barcelona, Spain on April 6-7. Here they shared data, determined how to proceed and developed a timeline for completion of their final report. Project coordinator, Professor Vivian Moses, of King's College London, had visited all twelve of the original participating EU countries as well as Switzerland where he discussed the work and helped collect data. Moses, jointly with the national partners, interviewed local educators, representatives of government ministries and agencies, the media and other relevant sources of information. Subjects included government activities and funding, formal education (schools, universities, colleges), media activity, web sites, book availability, industry participation and resources, and the views and activities of special interest groups including those opposed to biotech. Progress reports were made by country, with questions and discussion around each.

The Eurobarometer was a reference point for many of the participants. Eurobarometer 52.1, which is available at http://europa.eu.int/comm/research/pdf/eurobarometer-en.pdf, is a 94-page report based on a public opinion poll that was published in March 2000. This particular report attempts to gauge European attitudes to biotechnology, including: their expectations from this field, their knowledge of genetics and the sources of information that they trust. Polling is conducted by country to identify regional distinctions. This is the fourth in a series of polls along similar lines, so in many instances readers can get a sense of how opinions have changed over time. One can see for example that in general Europeans score about 10% lower in 1999 compared to 1996 in terms of their view of whether different types of biotechnology applications are useful. Their overall assessment of whether the applications were risky remained about the same, but their opinion about the moral acceptability dropped by 11 to 15% depending on the technology. Willingness to support biotech applications also dropped considerably between 1996 and 1999 - by between 12 and 16 points. The lack of understanding of the science behind biotech was dramatic. About 50% of Greeks, and 40% of Germans and French surveyed believed that there were no genes in ordinary (non genetically modified) tomatoes. In four countries (Portugal, Spain, Ireland and the United Kingdom), more than 50% of those surveyed did not know whether it was possible to transfer animal genes to plants.

Some workshop participants indicated that they felt an almost complete lack of trust of the media to provide balanced reporting, whereas others indicated that this situation was improving and though the headlines still may be sensational, the content of the articles was fairly accurate. Several participants reported that they were providing support to scientists to make it easier for them to speak to groups about the potential of biotechnology. This included sharing slides for presentations and offering training in media relations. The teachers in the group were eager to accept the new materials that I had to share with them - just like most other teachers that I have worked with in Canada over the years! In general, it was soon apparent that whether we are based in Europe or North America, we experience similar challenges relating to communicating biotechnology to the public. These challenges include regional differences in attitude, varied levels of education and understanding of the issues, lack of coordination among the many groups offering services, lack of resources, need for materials in many languages, lack of media understanding of the science and a strong and vocal opposition to biotech. We are trying to develop programs to take the science to the public through displays, mobile teaching labs, web site development and encouraging scientific experts to talk to school children and their neighbors and families. We are sharing presentations with extension specialists, lending resources to schools and collaborating with industry partners. We are consulting those who do not embrace the technology to gain their input and understand their fears.

It will be interesting to see the final report that comes out of this collaboration in about a year from now. I predict that the list of best practices will not be a short one. We will still see the need for many different and creative approaches to the subject of biotechnology to meet the many needs of the public. To follow the activity of this committee, see: http://www.boku.ac.at/iam/ebe

Judy Hume can be reached by email at: judy.hume@agwest.sk.ca.

Malevolent Metaphors: The Misrepresentation of Genetically Modified Foodstuffs?

Australasian Biotechnology, Oct/Nov 2001; Vol 11, No. 5, pp 40-41
By Bev France *, <b.france@ace.ac.nz>,

(*Auckland College of Education, Principal lecturer, Science and Technology Education Auckland, New Zealand -- Thanks to David Tribe, Editor of Australasian Biotechnology for his help with getting this piece to AgBioview.)

The biotechnology community has found it difficult to communicate positive images of biotechnology to the public. This article analyses the underlying causes for the rejection of GM food by the public and suggests how this situation might be remedied.


In New Zealand there is a growing perception that the biotechnology industry has lost the genetic modification debate. I felt this strongly when I was one of seventeen asking for the scientists' perspective to be heard at the anti-GM rally in Auckland on 1st September 2001. Ten thousand New Zealanders held opposing views and they gave notice that they did not want anything to do with GM. Their vehemence against the technology was very evident not only in the banners they carried but also in the slogans they shouted.

In addition to the GM food debate there is another discussion going on. This debate has focussed on the viability of developing New Zealand as an organic primary producer. An example of this debate is Way to Grow. Why going organic could make NZ rich (Listener February 12, 2000). A political expression of this debate is evident in the Green Party's aim to have the country's primary producers 50% organic by 2020 (Ansley, 2000). It appears that such an aim is coupled with a desire to turn away from GM technology.

These debates have acquired a focus with the publication of the Royal Commission's Report on Genetic Modification (www.gmcommission.govt.nz) that provided an opportunity for all interested parties to contribute. To those in the anti-GM camp the report betrayed their contributions and this view was very evident from the banners carried by anti-GM protestors on that Saturday march.

Why has the debate been so resoundingly lost? It is important that the biotechnology community understands the reasons for these negative views so they can provide conditions for a meaningful dialogue with 'the public'. I believe that such negativity cannot be dismissed as public ignorance or the result of media antipathy. Instead it is important that all participants reflect on the nature of a debate with the 'public' in terms of the participants as well as the message.

When debating it is important to know your opposition and your audience. As this debate is public it is important that the debaters need to know not only the message they are transmitting, the nature of the opposing argument and but also their audience. The public understanding of GM issues: What is 'public'? Niedhardt (1993) describes 'public' as a communication system of speakers, audience and mediators and he defines the space where ideas are made accessible and open to scrutiny as the 'public domain'.

In relation to GM food, who are 'the speakers'? According to Niedhardt's (1993) analysis the speaker group includes civic groups, interest groups, experts and intellectuals. The speakers in this debate are scientists (The Royal Society and University spokespeople) and interest groups notably Greenpeace and the Green Party.

Who are 'the audience'? An academic definition considers them as a group of laypersons whose composition is unstable. What does this mean? It seems that many have considered the 'audience' to be 'deficit' (Miller, 1983) in their understanding of GM and consequently the role of the scientific community is to provide information to correct this situation. There are two problems with this supposition. The first problem is to assume that the 'audience' group is homogeneous and the second is the assumption that they are lacking in scientific information. Jon Turney (1998) observes that the important question is not what do the public need to know about genetic engineering but what do they want to know?

The third group are the 'mediators'. They include scientists who communicate their science, pressure groups who communicate their viewpoint and journalists who report on matters of current interest. This article uses two examples from the Listener (a weekly New Zealand magazine) to demonstrate the power of subliminal messages that accompany reasoned articles when journalists take up the role as 'mediators'. My argument is that although the articles provide a balanced account, the headlines and images transmit a subliminal negative message. For the purpose of this article these messages re called 'malevolent metaphors'.

Metaphors and especially malevolent metaphors

We all use metaphors to explain complex ideas. Its function is to explain the characteristics of something that is unknown or unfamiliar to the reader (the target) by giving it a temporary identity with an object with which the reader is familiar (the source).

In many cases metaphors can be positive. 'Clean Green New Zealand' is more than just a description of New Zealand. Instead it is a metaphor and branding for a lifestyle and environment that New Zealanders desperately what to make real. Such a metaphor is benevolent because it makes one accepting of the object that is compared.

In contrast malevolent metaphors are those where a largely negative emotional burden is transferred. The following two examples are analysed to demonstrate the nature of the metaphor that has been used to transmit this negativity.

These examples are:

* Frankenstein Food. Why you don't know what you are eating. (Listener, March 1999)
* The Gene Genie. Why genetic labelling won't stop the GE food revolution. (Listener August 1999).
* Frankenstein Food

The front page of the Listener (March 1999) displays a perfect dew-covered tomato just picked from the vine. On the tomato is a yellow label which reads '#4064 MAY CONTAIN TOMATO'. This image signals the genetic modification-labelling debate that occurs inside the covers.

The source from which the headline is drawn is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein where a 'scientist' has created a 'being'. However the later version via the television programme 'The Munsters' may be more familiar to most people. Whatever the reference there is a supposition that GM modified food is suitable for such a creature. Another interpretation infers that eating this food may turn one into a monster (Turney, 1998). Or perhaps this non-natural food may be appropriate for a non-natural being. The image portrays perfection and freshness. The unblemished tomato is gleaming with dewdrops and the stalk signals that it has just been picked from the vine.

The tomato's label works on more than one level. There is the reference to the labelling of apples by Enza that brands New Zealand exported apples. Yet there is another subliminal message that refers to Rene Magritte‚s Surrealist image where the painter uses naturalistic images to illustrate that things are not as they seem. Magritte‚s painting The use of words I depicts a pipe with the inscription ŒCeci n‚est pas une pipe‚. This painting provides the viewer with an opportunity to respond to the image in many ways. It is a painting of a pipe. In addition the inscription, in French, provides us with a clue to the painter's viewpoint. In the same way the tomato is not a tomato even though it has all the appearance of Œtomatoness‚.

The image of the tomato provides all the links to images of pure, fresh food but the label prompts the viewer to mistrust the image in the same way that the Magritte painting of a pipe inspires us to look beyond the image. Partial reasonableness is swept aside with the alliterative headline of Frankenstein‚s Food and the reader is prepared to approach the article with a preconceived idea that such food is potentially dangerous. The opportunity for reasoned discourse is lessened.

* The Gene Genie

The gene genie (Listener August 1999) headline appears to be a potentially benign metaphor. Images of microscopes give it a pseudo-scientific respectability and the green background provides an illusion that this product is aiming to be Œclean and green‚. The labels tell us that in addition to the material being genetically engineered it is a Œ100% food product‚ while the red labelling at the bottom of the can warms us that it is ŒMYSTERY DNA WITH PROTEIN‚. A ring of microscopes round the base of the can give us another reminder that this food has a scientific origin.

There are two sources for this image. The headline alludes to a genie in the bottle that is a source of potential wonders but when misused can turn against his master. The second source is the soup can which invokes Andy Warhol‚s painting of 200 Campbell Soup Cans where his depiction of rows of identical soup cans provides an instantly recognisable image of the predicability of mass production.

The image and its headline provide a series of conflicting messages. This can's contents are not predictable, the label tells us it is 'mystery DNA' and it is a genetically engineered food product.. A sense of inevitability of potential disaster is evoked by the headline 'the gene genie'. What may happen when the can is opened and the genie is let out?

Yet more conflicting messages are transmitted. Although the image of the can of food is played straight the dramatic labelling written in warning red, 'Mystery DNA' overshadows its partial reasonableness. Scientific symbols are provided with microscopes but they are given a toy persona. Even though the can is sealed and therefore free of contamination the labelling cries beware. This genie is certainly inside this can floating in a blue sky.

Balancing the debate: the need for benevolent metaphors

I believe that one of the factors that have contributed to the resounding defeat of scientists as 'speakers' in the GM debate is the negative messages that have been transmitted by the 'mediators' in their headlining and illustrating of their stories. Even though the articles written by Listener journalists ' Denis Welch and Margo White (Listener, March 13-19, 1999) and Mark Revington (Listener, August, 1999) are balanced, the accompanying images illustrate a malevolent metaphor.

I hope I have demonstrated that these metaphors have the potential to provide a malevolent image. To counteract this impact 'speakers' in this debate need to generate some benevolent metaphors that provide more positive images of this technology. Although there have been many attempts to provide the 'public' with accessible information about GM and GM food for example the Independent Biotechnology Advisory Council (1999), New Zealand Royal Society and NZBA web page (www.biotech.org.nz) the images accompanying the explanation are missing or lack lustre. Does an image take the place of a thousand words?

I would argue that information need strong headlines and images to counterbalance to power of the malevolent metaphor. In New Zealand the 'audience' has been persuaded to reject GM food and GM technology. The debate rages on. It is time we used the powerful medium of visual metaphors to promote a positive beneficial story for GM food.


Ansley, B. (2000) Way to grow. Listener February 12, 2000 pp.17-19.; Miller, J. (1983) Science literacy: a conceptual and empirical review. Daedalus 112 (2) pp. 29-48.; Neidhardt, F. (1993) The public as a communication system. Public Understanding of Science 2 pp. 339-350.; Revington, M.(1999) The gene genie. Listener August 28, 1999 pp.16-20.; Turney, J. (1998) Frankenstein‚s Footsteps. London: Yale University Press. ; Welch, D. & White, M. (1999) The Frankenstein Feud. Listener March 13 pp. 16-20.

Training Manual On Effective Writing Available Online


A major training resource designed to help those working in the not-for-profit sector hone their writing skills has been made available free of charge on the internet, thanks to the support of IDRC.

Writing for Change, originally published as an interactive CD-ROM by Fahamu and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), is designed primarily for people working in the not-for-profit sector, including researchers, scientists, project managers, team members, campaigners, fundraisers, social activists and writers. Available in English, French and Spanish from Fahamu's web site, the resource is thought to be one of the most comprehensive available, running at about 900 pages per language.

Writing for Change is unique as a training resource because it contains major sections devoted not only to the core skills of writing, but also to the two crucial specialised areas of writing scientific papers for publication in journals and documents to help campaign or persuade.

The resource comprises three sections:

* Effective Writing: core skills, Writing for Science, and Writing for Advocacy. Core skills helps to develop the skills needed to write clearly and purposefully, organise ideas and express them well.

* Writing for Science shows how to produce writing for publication in specialist journals. It teaches how to build on the core skills of effective writing and add further skills that apply to this special ised type of writing. This section gives a better chance of getting published, discusses the ethics of authorship, how to respond to editors and correct proofs.

* Writing for Advocacy contains a wealth of advice on how to win hearts and minds and how to adapt core writing skills to lobbying or campaigning documents. The section looks at articles, leaflets, newsletters, pamphlets, press releases and posters.

Extra features include a resource centre with suggestions for further reading and links to useful web sites and resources


Winning Public Confidence - What Can Scientists Do?

Prof. Chris Leaver of Oxford University asked the following questions to readers of AgBioView

1. Do you believe that some journalist or media are only interested in the story at the expense of the validity of the underpinning science (or 'current truth'). 2 How do we weigh/balance a scientists views and opinions against an activists (paid?) views? 3. What is the way forward to increase trust in science (which is probably one of the main options for continuation of life on this planet). 4. How can scientists and media communicators work together in any meaningful way to improve and contribute to public understanding of science as a basis for future informed political decision making?

Some excellent responses were received and posted below.


From Tom Hoban

People in modern society generally take science and technology for granted... until something goes wrong. Overall people throughout the industrialized and developing countries report an appreciation for the things technology provides. There are certainly groups and individuals that are concerned about the risks and social impacts of technology (which all applications of technology have, even if scientists don't study them).

Since critics tend to have a mission they are more likely to find ways for their voices to be heard. It really turns into a struggle for the attention and opinion among special interests on all sides (of which organized science is clearly one of the most powerful.) Most people focus on their immediate needs and watch TV (at least in the US), not concerning themselves with science and tech. They hardly care about most public issues - except when it hits home (like in food or water). Scientists must do a better job explaining why they do what they do. Not the details on the science, but the motivations and benefits. Also need to acknowledge any risks and impacts that exist. People's concerns go beyond technical risk of human safety. Many of the most complex and contentious issues involve equity, control, choice, and the regulatory system. Activists are critical of industry and government (who are seen as locked into a military-industrial-consumer complex.). Science becomes a symbol of globalization and corporate control (which does get the attention of people who think and care about public issues.) There are some legitimate concerns that the profit motive is over-riding the public interest. This is becoming most apparent at the university level. Scientists' credibility is inversely related to their perceived ties to business interests. Public confidence in science is directly related to their confidence in government regulations. Many observers believe the Second Bush regime has been favoring corporate interests over the public interests in all realms (so why would we expect any better for science and tech.) The timing of the WTO case was a major mistake that has further alienated the rest of the world (seen as retaliation against the French over Iraq invasion and promoting US corporate interest.)

So public confidence in most parts of the world will be shaped by the extent to which science is linked to American interests. The fact that an American company (Monsanto) is the chief symbol of global bioscience causes the credibility of that science to be significantly lower (especially given all the mistakes that company has made over the years). Scientists are too quick to blame the media for their inability or unwillingness to communicate in an understandable and credible fashion. Most journalists have little background in specific scientific fields - especially at local papers and broadcast stations. Many have no time or interest to learn. They want bottom line, black-white answers to complex questions. The media report things that are controversial and that will engage their audience. They also do want to present all sides of a story. If the activists are more eloquent and prepared, they will be featured. Scientist are not very often able to communicate to the media in a manner and format that is useful. Hope this helps. I will certainly like to see a whole dialogue on this captured on AgBioView.


From Alan McHughen

The concern is not that science isn't trusted, it is that scientists aren't trusted, especially those scientists taking money and/or instructions (overtly or covertly) from private interests.

At a bizarre and somewhat heated public 'debate' in Vancouver a couple of years ago, characterized by a boisterous crowd shouting down anything at all positive about science, one young woman got to the microphone and, slowly, calmly and sincerely expressed her concern that maybe "the whole scientific paradigm is wrong". Another prominent activist said "there are more truths than those proposed by science". So, yes, there are some who don't believe in science.

Most people do - they believe and trust the scientifically sound prediction that their airplane will fly, that antibiotics will cure their infection, and that science can create weapons of mass destruction. But those same people will distrust scientists proffering a political opinion such as we've heard in the not-too-distant past: "We have BSE under control; the meat is perfectly safe to eat". Now they're hearing "GM is a precise science, GM food is perfectly safe to eat".


From Greg Conko

I think what Tom and Alan have written above is useful -- though I think the exact nature of the relationship between trust in government oversight and trust in regulated technologies is highly nuanced and poorly understood. But that's an argument for another day. I'll only add that the question of "trust" is hugely important.

A political scientist at the University of Chicago named Howard Margolis has contributed the insight that trust -- or rather, what makes people gain or lose trust in others -- is a two-way street. Not only must we trust those providing information for us to believe, but if the information provided to us seems implausible (whether it is true or not) then we may lose trust in those who provided it. That is, if the public believes rDNA to be inherently dangerous, then anyone telling them it isn't will be deemed untrustworthy, and the public will then find some justification for that judgment. So, as we have seen, academic scientists with no financial ties to the industry can easily be labeled "representatives of the industry," because that allows the public to justify their lack of trust in an otherwise trustworthy source of information.

That obviously poses quite a problem for our ability to change peoples' minds. But the likeliest way to do so is to first understand what the specific audience believes and why they believe it, and try to relate with them on that point. There's an old slogan in political campaigns that people don't care what you know until they know that you care.

To gain a foot hold of trust, communicators must first empathize/sympathize with the audience. The second step is to acknowledge that what you're saying may seem counter-intuitive, which gives the dubious listener an opportunity to continue trusting the communicator in the face of information that challenges pre-conceived notions. (As an aside, I suspect this is why apostates are such effective communicators: They previously believed proposition A and now believe Not-A. So, people are more willing to consider their new opinion.)

To put this in terms of trust in science, it means that scientists must be willing to relate their findings and beliefs to ordinary attitudes held by the public. Say not only that we found X, but why the finding is relevant and how it fits into the structure of the audience's received wisdom about a certain topic.


From Andrew Apel:

> Do you believe that some journalist or media are deliberately only > interested in the story at the expense of the science(or 'current > truth').

When it comes to the "popular media," the purpose of journalism is to create a product that sells. The newspapers are supposed to fly off the stands and millions are supposed to cluster around their televisions in breathless anticipation. If a journalist can accomplish this, revenues increase. Revenues gained from sensationalism will always be maximized to a limit; a seller of information must preserve the appearance of credibility. So long as that appearance survives, anything is permissible. This problem will not go away.

> How do we weigh/balance a scientists views and opinions against an > activists(paid?) views?

They cannot be weighed or balanced. The job of a scientist is to discover facts about the physical world. The "views" of others not in the scientific community are irrelevant. But, see the remarks about sensationalism and the media above.

> What is the way forward to increase trust in science(which is > probably one of the main options for continuation of life on this > planet).

Trust in science is trust in facts, or at least, trust in the best facts available. People who don't trust facts, who must necessarily be a minority, should be locked up and appropriately medicated.

> How can scientists and communicators work together in any meaningful > way to improve and contribute to public understanding of science as a > basis for future informed political decision making?

If facts are not good enough, you have to hand things over to the communicators and suffer the consequences.

I'm a cynic.


From Sheila M. Anderson

Presentations demand skills as detailed as scientific research. Discoveries are in the details. So, I believe it's useful to study what works, gets your positive attention, and apply lessons where possible. There are devices that create attention. Questions can be compelling. Ask "did you know?" or "have you tried" or "would you like" to introduce the subject. Show photographs. Show crops eaten by insects, and crops not eaten. Show historical context - what looks like nodules on a twig turned out to be corn. Talk about the benefits - less pesticide use in the field translates into safer food on the table. Does longer shelf life mean less loss of nutrition? If so, say so! Present the message to match the audience. If the audience is not scientific, don't talk in scientific terms. People are curious, but not looking for a lecture, in most audiences or in the media, so get to the point. Also, keep in mind that most reporters are given assignments by editors. The way the assignments are framed have much to do with the contents. Some slant is inevitable, and may be unintentional, simply because the job of editor is to determine what is newsworthy. Some do the job better than others. Always, SHOW THE FOOD. Nothing is as effective as a close up, larger than life, photograph of something that looks so good, you might want to bite into it. There is a great void of photographs, of food, available and being enjoyed by people who look just like your audience. People select food by how it looks, initially, then by smell. So, showing pictures can create an enormous advantage - and change the focus from fear to fascination.


From Andy Benson

Now for the "non-scientist summary overview" - which actually was jointly developed by Harvard School of Public Health and the International Food Information Council (IFIC) with input from scientists, the food sector, consumer organizations and the media. First one over-riding point. Over 95% of the world's population (non-scientific observation but hopefully somewhere in the ball-park) aren't scientists and THEY are ultimately the judge of what's trustworthy and what isn't, what science is accepted and what isn't. So I think its fair to say that to reach and influence public opinion about science you have to extend way beyond the scientific community. Outreach, partnering, networking, considered communications that address not only what you want to say but that also show due consideration for the interests and sensibilities of all major stakeholders, are essential elements. And let's not forget that for almost all of us "the public" (however you define that) is usually the major stakeholder that ultimately determines success or failure. And whether we are just talking in elite scientific circles, or addressing a conference, talking to the press, or coordinating a public information program, we are all "communicators" and we need to do that clearly, effectively, and with due attention to how what we are saying will likely play out in the wider public domain. To examine these issues and assist the communications process, the Harvard School of Public Health and the International Food Information Council Foundation convened an advisory group of leading experts. Following the initial meeting in Boston, Massachusetts, a series of eight round tables was held around the country involving more than 60 other nutrition researchers, food scientists, journal editors, university press officers, broadcast and print reporters, consumer groups, and food industry executives.

Based on input from the participants at these meetings, a set of guiding principles for the communication of emerging science was developed. The first draft of the guidelines was subsequently reviewed by a second meeting of advisory group members and revised, and the final draft circulated to roundtable participants prior to publication. At the heart of these principles is the belief that food-related science can be effectively communicated in ways that serve both public understanding and the objectives of the communicators.

The "Guidelines" were developed to address the question of communicating emerging science on nutrition, food safety and health but I think they would also apply to many if not most areas of science-based communication.

The Guidelines were first published by Oxford University Press in the Journal of National Cancer Institute (February 4, 1998, Volume 90, Number 3) and subsequently summarized in the Journal of the American Medical Association. General guidelines were developed for all parties in the communications process and I've cut and pasted these below for your use.

Specific Guidelines were also developed for scientists, editors, journalists, industry, consumer and other interest groups and can be accessed at: http://ific.org/publications/brochures/loader.cfmurl=/commonspot/security/getfile.cfm&PageID=1598

In short, I'm suggesting that considered (and considerate) communications are a vital underpinning that, when applied consistently, transparently and fairly, will build and maintain trust.

As another resource, there is a very good article "Managing Threats to Scientific Credibility" by Robert Gravani and Gilbert Leveille in the January 2004 edition of Food Technology. See: http://www.ift.org/publications/docshop/ft_shop/01-04/01_04_pdfs/01-04-gravani.pdf

Personal empathy is always a great asset - it shows a link with and a connection to your audience - but this can also be shown in a TV interview or to some extent in a written communication if you don't have the opportunity to serenade your audience with a guitar.