The Risk-Monger

As we watch the mainstream media come up with excuses for the IARC monograph that showed, without a shadow of a doubt, that prepared meats and sausages are carcinogenic (Group 1 = carcinogenic), we should take a moment to reflect on why our news sources have become so inconsistent when it comes to reporting on scientific evidence. Why have news sources sought to reassure the public about eating red meat, while still encouraging campaigns against the use of glyphosate (which IARC concluded was less carcinogenic)?

When I studied journalism in the early 1980s, I was taught that you needed evidence to support your work. We called it professionalism and our concern was to avoid alarmist, yellow journalism that put emotion over facts. Today it is more complicated. With the decline of traditional press business models, marketing managers have moved into the editor’s office, determining what the public wants to hear, and then sculpting the news accordingly. A story is measured not by its significance or importance to society, but by the social media reaction (measured in retweets or shares) which any Facebook savvy NGO knows, can be abused to “activise” news to suit campaign goals. Confirmation bias rather than a readership enlightenment has become the modus operandi.

So what happens to science when it hits the headlines? Well, it will only hit the headlines if: a) it can be made shocking and scary; and b) it is shocking and scary in the way editors are told we want to be scared. In other words, if the scientific reality does not interfere with the things we like to do (high benefit-driven issues), it will make news; if the news challenges what we like or forces us to change cherished habits, then we look for other news. For example:

  • If scientists discovered that increased electromagnetic fields from mobile phone masts were causing the bee population to forage less and grow weak, the media would report that on the first day but then look for other possible evidence that the public would be willing to accept as actionable points (like banning pesticides … after all, farmers are not big news consumers).
  • If more tests showed the high levels of endocrine disrupting chemicals in coffee, the media would likely interview a scientist who says that we should not worry about the questionable reports of declines in hormone levels. But one questionable study of a low-dose exposure to a possibly endocrine active synthetic chemical, and the media is pouring over that for months.
  • If studies were released ahead of the upcoming UN Climate Summit in Paris that showed more than half of the anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions coming from meat and automotive production (a conservative estimate), it certainly would not enjoy the media attention that the coal and petroleum bashing activists have been focussing on.

Much of this editorial hypocrisy is activist driven. Media savvy pressure groups keep pounding on editors desks until they cover their campaign news. Even Politico, within a year in Brussels, has caved to NGO pressure.

What we are seeing is the continual erosion of scientific reporting and a decline in media integrity. Some would say it has been going on for the last century, from yellow journalism to war-time propaganda to government or religious censorship to corporate advertising and that this is merely one more step in the evolutionary decline of media standards. But as economic models for an independent press are hollowing out and regulatory oversight is becoming impossible, the media is no longer even trying to be consistent or evidence-based.

Here are several examples where media hypocrisy and scientific selectivism seem to have been normalised.

Glyphosate or bacon – running with news the public wants to hear

This week IARC released a study showing that prepared meats were carcinogenic (Group 1 – the equivalent of saying they are carcinogenic) and that red meats like beef, pork and lamb were also carcinogenic (but at the level of probably carcinogenic – Group 2A). I had correctly predicted on the Risk-Monger Facebook page that this would be news for two days tops until the media would find some way to apologise for the facts. Sure enough, two days after, the Economist (a somewhat less than disreputable news source in the English-speaking world) came out with a wonderful response: soaking your steaks in beer before putting them on the grill apparently reduces the exposure to carcinogens. Even more impressive, a black beer reduces exposure more than a pilsner, so I guess they were right: Guinness is Good For You! Still carcinogenic, just less so and nicely marinated! (It pains me to add that using a BBQ to cook your steak is probably not the best way to live a zero-risk cancer life!)

Eating meat, especially salty bacon, is something many people want to do, and they do not want to hear that it is bad for their health. Benefits breed bias, and the higher the benefits, the greater the bias. People want to hear good news instead of having to change their habits, so the media gladly complied with a feel-good absolution.

But compare this to an IARC monograph from the spring that concluded that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, was probably carcinogenic (a determination less certain than the one made on processed meats). Despite seeing how the NGOs pushed their own scientist into the lead position on the IARC working group and how the mainstream scientific community and government institutes roundly criticised IARC for the methodology behind their conclusions, the media did not challenge any of the claims. They did not come to the defence of farmers, how much glyphosate they actually used, the benefits of herbicides to food security or the incredibly low health risks of our exposure to this crop protection product compared to drinking a single cup of coffee. Rather, the different media sources have joined in on the activist campaigns to ban glyphosate-based herbicides and reduce public trust in GMOs. Reporting on scientific facts was commercially far less attractive than lending credence to the populist bashing of a successful biotech company.

The media do not see the hypocrisy of spending months “covering news” on the public concerns of a substance IARC deemed as “probably” carcinogenic and less than 48 hours representing the same institution’s conclusions that another substance is carcinogenic. The real story should be that IARC is not a credible organisation and that we need to understand that the dose makes the poison, whether it is the tiny levels of exposure to a valuable herbicide or the reasonable levels of bacon one actually could consume in a day. But this would involve educating the news consumer rather than pandering to their marketable fears.

Media-led campaigns

There was a time when the media covered issues from both sides of the spectrum, perhaps with some bias according to editorial predisposition, but there was an opportunity for some sort of discussion. I have recently noticed how some once credible news organisations, like the British daily, the Guardian, have crossed over from reporting the news, to trying to make the news. When I visit the Guardian website, I now consider it with the same cognitive hesitancy as I would a website like Friends of the Earth – the Guardian has become a campaign organisation. Two examples:

In March, 2015, the Guardian launched: Keep it in the Ground a campaign against fossil fuels in the run-up to the Paris climate summit. It is not news, but a news organisation’s attempt to make news, cynically using its readership to force investors like Bill Gates to divest from fossil fuels and urging its readers to make a difference (be a climate hero) by sharing the Guardian links. They acknowledge that it is a campaign (in coordination with a little-known NGO) without questioning what the role of a news organisation should be. I acknowledge that the Guardian is no longer a source for credible journalism (however noble the editor may think this action is).

I was taught in the 1980s that journalists should resist influence in gathering information. What the Guardian is doing is spreading influence (with little credible information gathering). They are being disrespectful to individuals and unrealistic in their proposed alternatives. What is heartening is that of the millions of Guardian readers (five million followers on Facebook alone), only a couple hundred thousand have signed on to their campaign – it seems that the average Guardian reader is still capable of sniffing out real news from bullshit.

The Guardian launched the Undercurrent in Australia in 2015. Posing as political satire, it was merely a means for environmental activists to use a caricature of news events to cynically lob innuendo and insults at institutions, companies and trade relations. After the IARC monograph on glyphosate, the Undercurrent went bat-shit crazy on Monsanto. It has been widely shared by groups like Greenpeace, and under the veil of news satire, the Guardian thinks it can campaign against companies, individuals and institutions without needing to use facts or balanced reporting. Monsanto replied to the Guardian, putting the hypocrites in their place:

 

We love to participate in balanced discussion and informed debate on food and agriculture. But the public deserves balanced reporting, especially when it comes to topics as important as the safety of food production. Unfortunately, misinformation only polarises the debate and adds to confusion and fear.

Snap – I love it when smart-ass journalists get schooled by companies! Hypocrite test question time: Would the Undercurrent do the same rip-off job on meat eaters? In Australia? Come on now!

And what did the Guardian say about the IARC red meat scare report on Day 2? Well, they gave a cute info-graphic to reassure readers that although they are both Group 1 carcinogens, eating a ham sandwich is not as risky as smoking a pack of cigarettes. I am afraid IARC did not say that and, in any case, their 20 cigarettes versus one slice of ham is a pretty misleading comparison (why not one cigarette v three strips of bacon?). They then put processed meat within a list of IARC’s 116 things that can give you cancer (implied message: everything gives you cancer, so you can ignore IARC … this time).

I wonder if the Guardian would show the same generosity when comparing the carcinogenicity of glyphosate to that same pack of cigarettes or the much larger, more benign list of probable or possible carcinogens? Who am I kidding? Activists like the editor of the Guardian tend to exhibit a certain “feel at home” comfort with their hypocrisy – what I have referred elsewhere to as an opportunistic, morally patronising Machiavellianism. This applies not only to NGOs and media organisations but also certain sanctimonious companies like Chipotle (you can still sign the petition to demand that Chipotle shows consistency in their righteous food safety campaigns and now stops serving red meat in their restaurants!).

A paradigm shift

Before the rise of the Internet and online news, traditional press organisations used to have three revenue streams to allow a certain economy and independence: advertising, subscriptions and classifieds. During the 90s and into the 2000s (except for a pause in 2001-02), all three revenue sources eroded to the point where print media became commercially unviable (and network TV news is now undergoing similar threats to its business model). Online news is a much tighter, more editorially forgiving news source of selected silos and shorter news blasts. The news consumer has changed his or her reading habits, brand loyalty and expectations on novel concepts like engagement and feedback.

In the 80s-90s, media organisations were dependent on large advertisers, often big companies, who were able to exert a certain pressure on the editors. Today that pressure no longer exists (despite what fringe activist groups try to pretend) and the content is being distributed (pushed) by NGOs and special interest activists with large online followings. There is no longer any risk or downside to attacking industry so nothing is sacred anymore (although interestingly for hypocrite watchers: the companies involved in the new media tools like Google, Apple, Facebook … tend to enjoy a more positive press coverage and they are still largely trusted by the public).

What we find then are news organisations from the Guardian to the Natural News Network running unedited (free) content provided by questionable sources without any question of quality control or verification. Scientific validation is no longer a responsibility of the media (it has been decades since most media outlets had in-house science journalists). Scientists cannot compete with activist PR machines and emotional marketing campaigns while corporate interests are considered as outside of the interests of the main content providers. (ie, blacklisted and denigrated).

What journalists very often forget is that the role of the media is to inform (I feel embarrassed sometimes having to remind them that this verb is the root of the noun: information). News on novel drug discoveries that cure diseases, beautiful developing tourist locations or entertaining shows are often much better received than scare stories planted by activists because deep down, despite the efforts of mal-motivated campaigners, people do want information to enjoy life (not to confirm their hatreds or needlessly worry). Journalists who positively inform may never win prizes, but at least they have integrity.

So how should people be informed about the nonsense coming out of IARC (whether it is on glyphosate or red meat or working nights)? Probably that the study exists, that IARC is paid to focus on cancer risks but that the dose makes the poison, and then put the risk into a context people can understand. Some did that with red meat but failed to do the same with glyphosate (which is far less toxic than coffee). Why didn’t the media do that with glyphosate? Maybe the hypocrites just forgot.

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Comments

  1. Fairly speaking, terribly correct assessment: unfortunately, we live in virtual reality and, as a flock of sheep we follow what the wise (ones) tell us via media: impact? Real catastrophy and gradual, but permanent loss of competitiveness. Unfortunately, hypertrophic precautionary principle and no acknowledgement of proportionality principle! Mostly, not considered at all! It is typical in a case of the Air Package with all those 480 000 premature mortality cases in the EU, while the US impact assessment works with 3600 to 6200 rate there! Strange enough, is not it? And, the body behind is the WHO (who calculated by the way the same figures also for the US, but their responsible authorities worked out studies of their own far away from the scaremongers! No responsibility of journalists, high level of (official) corruption are the most significant factors. Sensation at any cost – VW is a typical victim of their stupid political correctness and ridiculous campaigners: have they met the EU most demanding standards? Yes, they have and if the campaigners miss a holistic approach required while assessing the technology compromises, it is their problem. We should wake up and kick out such prophets with no responsibility and snatched powers! It is the only way out of this current mess. As one of more responsible journalists said last week: Keep bacon, abolish the WHO! quite to the point.

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