When I went to get a master’s degree in journalism, lesson one, day one in the World Room at Columbia Journalism School in New York was a lecture about trust: in this case, journalists’ and authorities’ trust in the stories told by the apparent victims of horrible crimes.
I remember vividly the account of one story -recent at the time – in which a white woman in the South claimed that a black man had stolen her car at gunpoint with her two children buckled up in the back seat. The car was later discovered, submerged, in a nearby lake with the two children drowned in the back seat.
(Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash)
A manhunt was launched for the presumed child murderer and the search lasted weeks – until police interrogation revealed that the mother had made the whole thing up. In fact, she drove the car into the lake herself and drowned her own two kids because her new boyfriend didn’t like children. [Pause for the horror to set in]. The moral of this story to wannabe journalists at Columbia was simple: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Or, in other words: trust no one.
The same lecture, repeated to generations of American journalists at one of the country’s best journalism schools, has contributed to a culture of quality journalism designed to prevent reporters from falling for the trap of charismatic victims claiming injury or injustice at the hands of allegedly dastardly villains.
One-source stories were frowned upon at best, and often banned from publication altogether. Anonymous quotes were used sparingly, and only if the editor knew who the source was. Fairness and accuracy in reporting meant interviewing as many sources as possible in order to arrive at a good approximation of the truth.
With the dawn of electronic media databases, major newspapers encouraged reporters to correct every mistake, knowing that this would ensure credibility and trust with people reading stories not just on the day of first publication, but years later in a database. Intense competition among news agencies closely linked to the biggest newspapers also contributed to a culture of fairness and accuracy in reporting that built trust in the news media.
Now fast forward to Europe in 2016, where budget cuts have reduced many news organisations to skeleton staffs, fact-checking is rare, ’balance as bias’ and clickbait are depressingly widespread and Twitter and Facebook compete with broadsheet newspapers for scoops. Competition with always-on online and social media has reduced many news organisations to writing ‘he said’ stories one day and ‘she said’ rebuttals the next – if they even bother – for lack of the serenity to do any better the first time around.
The same phenomena exist to some extent in the US, too, of course, but high-quality news organisations such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Bloomberg and Dow Jones Newswires (to name just a few) continue to apply journalistic standards that put their European counterparts to shame. To cite just one example, The New York Times runs corrections every single day, including many which are almost comically marginal to most readers, whereas many European journalists and newspapers routinely refuse to correct even serious mistakes.
"Bad journalism begets bad decisions at all levels of society."
Sinking journalistic standards pose a serious challenge not only to professional communicators, who need to ensure that their employers’ points of view are reflected in key media coverage, but also – and more importantly – to democracy. Politicians base legislative and regulatory decisions in part on who’s making the most noise at any given moment.
Sinking standards also jeopardise the ability of ordinary citizens, who lack the time and resources to fact-check everything they hear, see and read, to make informed decisions in their daily lives. Bad journalism begets bad decisions at all levels of society and, as was the case for the manhunt in the American child murder case, distract public authorities from finding the real threats to society.
A favourite fall guy
Monsanto Co., where I’ve headed the European corporate communications function since December 2012, has certainly made many mistakes but is also a frequent victim of bad journalism and the bad decisions that follow it. For better or worse, the name Monsanto is inextricably linked with genetically modified (GM) seeds, an area in which it’s the world leader. Food safety authorities have agreed with Monsanto for years that GM seeds and crops are no more dangerous for people than their conventionally produced counterparts (and may even be healthier).
But 20 years of fearmongering by environmentalist pressure groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth – amplified through one-sided reporting by some of Europe’s leading media – has resulted in the reality that GM seeds are only imported into Europe, not grown here, with the exception of parts of Spain and Portugal. Never mind that it would make more sense, in environmental terms, to grow some of these imported grains in Europe. Lack of trust in science – aided and abetted by sloppy or deliberately biased journalism – has made it politically popular for politicians to ignore their own scientists’ advice.
There is a cautionary tale about trust and democracy in the way that Europe and Monsanto have reacted to the decades-old debate over GM seeds and foods: Europe has largely banned their cultivation, and Monsanto and other seed companies have dropped any plans to seek permission to sell them in Europe anytime soon, with the exception of seeking continued permission to market MON810, the GM maize seed (and related licenses) sold successfully in Spain and Portugal for more than 15 years. Not only has Europe closed the door on a technology that is helping farmers in the rest of the world make a balanced diet more accessible to millions of people who lack it.
The very fact that Europe’s politicians ignored the advice of their own scientists and caved to fearmongering by pressure groups also appeared to validate the doubts sown by those same fringe groups, increasing people’s trust in those groups and further reducing their trust in science and those who defend it. Moreover, Europe’s decisions are being cited in other parts of the world as evidence that it might know something the rest of the world doesn’t, allowing the cancer of Europe’s science trust deficit to spread.
The legacy of Europe’s science trust deficit now jeopardises potentially life-saving innovations in medicine (e.g. gene editing) as well as products derived from nanotechnology and some tried and tested technologies in seed and food production such as mutagenesis and neonicotinoids.
"The legacy of Europe’s science trust deficit now jeopardises potentially life-saving innovations in medicine."
So what can we do about it? Some of the answers are very basic, while some can take communicators out of their usual comfort zone.
- Listen, open up and engage. All too often, companies aren’t effectively monitoring and participating in conversations about them online and off-line, making it hard to effectively study and prevent the spread of misinformation. Research has repeatedly shown that it’s much harder to correct misinformation once it has been accepted as fact. So while it is sometimes tempting to dismiss some conversations as an echo chamber of corporate critics seeking validation for beliefs they already hold dear, it’s important to engage with people directly if only to avoid leaving the impression that you don’t care, or are afraid you might fail. By seeking shared values and connecting with people on that basis it’s sometimes possible to sway even die-hard opponents, as was the case when a single letter to the editor inspired former Greenpeace activist Mark Lynas to re-examine the erroneous basis of his opposition to GM organisms. He has since become an eloquent advocate for them as part of the solution to nourishing a growing population.
- Make it easier for journalists in a hurry to do a good job. Given the reality of shrinking newsrooms and budgets, it is incumbent upon professional communicators to make their pitch to journalists as simple, authoritative and easy to find and leverage as possible. At Monsanto, we are trying to do this by proactively reaching out to journalists in quiet times so they know where to find us in a pinch; investing in the creation of online, easily searchable positions on all sorts of topics, including myths old and new, in multiple languages; and creating user-friend infographic material that can easily be shared or repurposed as illustrations for news articles. Three years ago we had no social media channels in Europe whatsoever, only a US-focused blog and Twitter feed run by our corporate headquarters in St. Louis. Today we blog regularly on European topics in English and Spanish, and publish and promote the most important blog posts in multiple languages simultaneously; tweet in multiple languages; have a YouTube channel with videos in multiple languages; created a consumer-focused portal in French to invite the French public to come and “discover” the real Monsanto; engage with the public via Facebook pages in English and Ukrainian; and have posted our media contact details online for anyone to find.
- Build and leverage alliances with like-minded stakeholders at both the national and European levels. This may sound obvious, but it often takes a lot of work to identify potential allies, understand their unique points of view, reach out to them, identify common ground, agree on common messages and rules of engagement and work together towards a common cause. All this coordination requires dedicated resources and often only pays off much later – a fact that makes it vulnerable in times of corporate austerity. It’s important for corporate affairs departments to ensure that such relationships are seen as a long-term investment, not just a cost. It’s also important to ensure that when your allies do speak up, they use and reinforce the same messages, in the same language, so that it has a better chance of sticking with your target audiences. Many non-governmental organisations are masters at this, to the point of creating carbon copies of themselves in multiple countries in order to create the illusion of momentum.
- Use tough love to hold journalists (and others) accountable for spreading misinformation. As a former journalist of 15 years for major American news organisations, I often struggle to keep my calm when dealing with some European news groups. On topics related to Monsanto, French and German public television, the Süddeutsche Zeitung (a leading German daily newspaper) and BBC World Service are some of the least balanced media of all, in addition to being some of the most important in shaping public opinion and decision making in Europe. Asking for corrections and writing letters to the editor was a waste of time because European journalists and editors just ignored them. They knew full well that their reporting was biased and had no interest in letting anyone else know it. So, starting about two years ago, Monsanto took a new, rather confrontational approach: naming and shaming news organisations and individual journalists publicly on our blog. We have now done this dozens of times, correcting the inaccuracies in sloppy or biased reporting and often thereby inspiring new media coverage about the conspiracy theories that had been circulated by the targets of our blog’s Reality Check page. Any parent would call this an act of tough love – making sure their children know the limits of what they can get away with, and when they have gone too far. Media are certainly not our children, but society needs us to show them tough love.
- Finally, support and reward good journalism when you see it. This is the flip side of tough love. Journalists always hear about it when they mistakes, but are rarely told when they’ve done something well. Let them know! A short email or phone call will usually do. If they keep up the good work, subscribe to their publication. Then, if you have the money, advertise with them to show you support the kind of journalism that is good for democracy. •
This article reflects the personal opinions and experience of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of Monsanto.