Most journalists aren’t scientists. So what?

In early September, the media jumped at a chance to grab page views by characterizing a Stanford Annals of Internal Medicine study as showing organic food offers no real health benefits over conventionally grown foods.

Their headlines ignored the subtleties. The New York Times wrote, “Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce.” MSNBC said, “Organic food no more nutritious than non-organic, study finds.” The New York Daily News asked and answered in one breath, “Save your cash? Organic food is not healthier.” Almost every story latched on to one sentence in the study’s conclusion: “The published literature [from which the study took its data] lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.”

The compelling headlines did their job, and the topic was the top trending story for days. But when the buzz died down, news outlets predictably changed tack. Now they criticized the study for the researchers’ connection to big agriculture (Cargill gave $5 million in 2011 to the researchers’ institute). Then a week later (probably once someone had actually read the original study), they pointed out its flawed methodology–the obvious problem being that the scientists narrowly defined “nutritious” as containing “more vitamins,” and then equated “more vitamins” with “healthier,” the sort of conflated hypothesis worthy of a sixth grade science project. Mark Bittman brings up some other problems on his blog.

But while the science is disturbingly problematic, the media coverage, regardless of any post facto critical analysis is at least equally so. How is it that nearly every major news story relegated to the end of the story (or worse, omitted entirely) the sentence immediately following the controversial not “more nutritious” statement? The study itself concludes, “[c]onsumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” by an average of 30 and 33% in fact. This finding was better quantified and far more definitive than the vitamin angle, but perhaps because it didn’t fly in the face of people’s general understanding of organic foods, the press decided it wasn’t news. The possibility that organic foods are less likely to expose consumers to chemicals that disrupt reproductive, neurological, and respiratory function or to super-bugs is to be expected. The fact that organic foods have no value is a major surprise!

Bad science does not make good news. If a study doesn’t show anything, it’s irresponsible to bend it into a national story. (Incidentally, the no increase in vitamins finding had already been published in at least one prior study way back in 2009 anyway. Also, a number of studies conveniently omitted by the Stanford research team came to precisely the opposite conclusion.) Scientists should care about this too. There are other roads to funding besides notoriety–including turning out meaningful research.

Reporters no longer seem to take responsibility for putting out shoddy stories, even though they lend legitimacy to even the dumbest ideas. Because of all this coverage, whether organic food is worth growing, buying, and consuming at all is now considered a legitimate question. The uncertainty will be offered as an excuse to avoid changing school lunch programs and waved around by anti-regulatory wonks who hate broccoli. It’s another convenient lie woven into our subconscious.

Well, you might be thinking, I’m asking a lot here. Most journalists aren’t scientists. Science is complicated. Well, so what? Science may have moved on from mapping the shape of the planet to modeling subatomic particles, but the scientific method has stayed the same. If a journalist doesn’t understand the assumptions underlying scientific research and statistical significance, or how to explain either clearly and accurately, study up–even if this means reading more than the press release and extract.

What we need are more studies that look into whether the amount of pesticides and super-bugs in our food is safe–for consumers as well as the workers who grow it and the surrounding ecosystems. And we need stories about these studies that help readers interpret the results. Maybe these stories’ headlines could even relate to the whole story, not just the most controversial soundbites. Really, what we need is real news.

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