The Jumping Jerks Of Mass Media

As a journalist, one of the things I regularly do is draw conclusions based upon a series of facts. But I try to never jump to conclusions when the facts aren’t entirely clear. Apparently, many writers in the Inter­net Age don’t adhere to this same rule.

Recently, there has been plenty of media coverage of the discovery of glyphosate-resistant wheat in one Oregon farm field. This proved to be a shock to everyone since glyphosate-resistant wheat was withdrawn in 2005 by Monsanto following a few years of field trials.

Across the mass media world, the reaction to this discovery was swift. Most stories carried headlines similar to this one: “Monsanto Genetically-Modified Wheat Found In Oregon Field.” Most of these articles were sure to inflame passions, particularly among anti-biotech crop readers, highlighting the words “Monsanto” and “Genetically-Modified.” Undoubtedly, these pieces convinced a few wheat growers across the U.S. to file lawsuits against Monsanto for “detrimentally affecting their ability to sell wheat,” particularly to foreign customers.

Except these early articles didn’t get all the facts straight and seemingly jumped to some wrong conclusions.

Unfortunately, I’ve witnessed this kind of “guilt by association” pattern before, back in my days covering the soft drink industry. In 1993, a couple in Washington State reported finding a hypodermic syringe in a can of Diet Pepsi they had purchased. Before long, reports were coming in from all over the U.S. of similarly tainted cans.

I remember getting plenty of phone calls during this time from mass media reporters across the country. They all asked me how Pepsi could have “lost control of its quality measures at its production plant,” the implication being that all Diet Pepsi was made at one massive plant. In reality, I explained, there were hundreds of bottlers spread out across the U.S. producing Diet Pepsi and to have that many tainted cans would need to involve “a well-coordinated army of perpetrators” to work.

Ultimately, Pepsi discovered a video of someone “planting” a syringe in a Diet Pepsi can. Eventually, all cases of tainted cans were found to be hoaxes.

So back to the glyphosate-resistant wheat story, there are plenty of “facts” that don’t yet add up. While Monsanto acknowledges conducting field trails of Roundup Ready Wheat in Oregon, the last of these ended in 2001. Experts agree that any “overlooked” wheat seed would have remained viable in the soil for only one to two years. Also, Monsanto conducted its trials using spring wheat; the sample of glyphosate-resistant wheat found was a winter wheat. Perhaps most importantly, testing on wheat conducted by Monsanto failed to find “the detectable presence of MON 71800,” the CP4/maize EPSPS gene used by the company in its Roundup Ready Wheat trials.

So at this point, the mystery remains. And without more facts, I’m not ready to jump to any conclusions on this matter just yet. Others would be wise to do the same.

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