'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
* 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
* Training Manual On Effective Writing
* Winning Public Confidence - What Can Scientists
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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
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
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,
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,"
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
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
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
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,"
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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Biotechnology Communications - An Achievable
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
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
"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 email@example.com, 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,
Judy Hume can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Malevolent Metaphors: The Misrepresentation
of Genetically Modified Foodstuffs?
Australasian Biotechnology, Oct/Nov 2001; Vol 11, No. 5, pp 40-41
By Bev France *, <email@example.com>,
(*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
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
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
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,
* 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 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 Magrittes
Surrealist image where the painter uses naturalistic images to illustrate
that things are not as they seem. Magrittes painting The use of
words I depicts a pipe with the inscription Ceci nest 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 tomatoness.
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 Frankensteins 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 clean and green. The labels tell us that in addition
to the material being genetically engineered it is a 100% food product
while the red labelling at the bottom of the can warms us that it is MYSTERY
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 Warhols 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)
Frankensteins Footsteps. London: Yale University Press. ; Welch,
D. & White, M. (1999) The Frankenstein Feud. Listener March 13 pp.
Training Manual On Effective Writing Available
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
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
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
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 >
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
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.