TIME magazine has a story on DeWayne ‘Lee’ Johnston who took Monsanto to court claiming RoundUp caused his non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The story has obvious appeal, but is crying out for balance and it’s provenance is, to be kind, awkward. I’d love to read his account of his experiences since the trial — but from a source I can trust. I’m dubious that a writer employed by an advocacy organisation can be sensibly used as a journalist.
I responded on TIME’s Facebook page,
I’d encourage TIME to use independent science writers to cover contentious science-related stories.
Your magazine has, or should have, a higher standard than drawing emotive pieces from advocacy groups unchallenged by balance.
That Johnson’s version of his story has obvious human appeal ought to be a ‘trigger’ to be cautious when presenting it. The science claims made are presented without any balance. High standard journalism would have that balance be offered to the reader. The editors could, for example, have offered a short “fact check” box next to the article, or a matching article from a (biology/medicine) science writer.
Things to be pointed out would include that no-one is able to diagnose that glyphosate caused his cancer (there’s just no way to do it), and that a large trial of over 42,000 workers have shown a lack of relationship between glyphosate and the class of cancer Johnson has, including a lack of dose effect (if there is a real effect, larger doses ought to cause more cases, but this was not seen).
The writer is not a science writer, nor independent of the topic she is covering.
She is ‘researcher’ (read: press officer) for an advocacy organisation opposed to GMOs and glyphosate. Her describing her group as “a nonprofit food industry research group” leaves out that it’s aim to oppose these products – a conflict of interest. These groups often dress themselves up as independent ‘authority’ or ‘advisory’ groups in this manner. They are not sound sources for independent journalism, the sort of journalism that I would like to think that TIME prides itself on.
Experienced independent science writers are available to cover these topics. I won’t be alone in being an independent science writer with no conflicting affiliations and science training (a PhD in molecular biology) who have spent considerable time backgrounding the case and the topic. I would encourage TIME use independent science writers for these sorts of stories.
The story’s undeniable human interest and potential to draw a large audience would tempt any editor. That temptation ought to be a signal to put it up to higher standards. The more you ‘want’ something, the more you should look at it critically.
Editors should avoid writers employed by advocacy groups. They have an inherent conflict of interest. They’re paid by an organisation with a vested interest in media accounts supporting the group’s advocacy.
They’re political organisations. Media stories favouring their stance are part of their aim. Giving them a means to offer these serves their advocacy, not good journalism.
Editors would do much better to use independent science writers to cover contentious science-related stories. Higher-end publications should be able to use writers who have training matching that area of science, or experienced science writers who have already researched the background (or both).
Similarly, there’s an argument to make use of science editors. It’s possible to outsource science editing if there is no in-house specialist.
TIME magazine has one of the world’s largest circulations. Balance and fairness are essential for contentious topics.
Balancing the story
Even leaving Gillam’s story standing the editors could have offered a ‘fact check’ box next to the article, or have paired it with a piece from a specialist biology/medicine science writer.
Things to be pointed out might include that,
- No-one is able to diagnose that glyphosate caused Johnson’s cancer: there’s just no way to do it
- A large trial of over 44,000 workers found no relationship between glyphosate and the class of cancer Johnson has, including a lack of dose effect (if there is a real effect, larger doses ought to cause more cases, but this wasn’t seen)
- Court cases cannot ‘prove’ a person’s cancer is caused by RoundUp. The Johnson v Monsanto case explicitly states this. The case asks several questions. The standard for judging an outcome in a civil case is that something is more likely that not to have caused the outcome. It’s sometimes described as 50% and a feather. You don’t decide science from with coin toss, and a nudge in one direction.
- IARC reports hazard, not risk, and IARC does not set consumer risk warnings. It is the consumer regulatory bodies that serve consumers. IARC serves to give a heads-up as to regulatory bodies what they might consider. Worldwide all regulatory bodies have approved glyphosate-based weed killers for use.
- Opposition to use of glyphosate-based herbicides is political, not scientific, originally stems from opposition to GMOs, and is encouraged by advocacy groups like US Right to Know—the group that employs the writer, Carey Gillam. The original source of opposition is important: some opposed to GMOs rail against Monsanto as their nominated straw-man company to hate upon. They’re picked up railing against glyphosate as they associate it with herbicide-tolerant GMOs, not because of safety issues with glyphosate use. The safety claims have been loaded on later, with little sound justification.
Historically these large USA-based cases have been awful at deciding science-related issues. That likely says more about the USA legal system than anything else. The legal system’s failure is more open to question than the science. Despite this being a central point, I’ve yet to see TIME or other media draw attention to this.
It’s not helped by that Carey Gillam is not a science writer, nor independent of the topic she is covering. Despite that she has a conflict of interest, TIME isn’t the first major publication to use her work. (It leaves me wondering how she pitches herself to them.) The Guardian has also run pieces by her.
Carey Gillam and US Right to Know
Gillam is employed by US Right to Know (USRTK). USRTK describes itself as an neutral ‘research’ group. A look at it’s output suggests it is in practice a political advocacy group. This is also consistent with who it’s funders are.
I have no objection to people doing reasonable investigations of whatever, but groups should be plain about their aims. If they mean to oppose a type of farming practice or particular products, they should just be up-front and say so.
In my experience it is common for advocacy groups to dress themselves up as a reputable source of information while pushing an agenda. Similarly, my experience is that entrenched advocates rarely change their stripes. More often over time they develop cover stories when they realise that being truthful about their aim to oppose leaves them (rightfully) called out as errant. This habit of disguising aims is a hindrance to clear discussion (and may have mislead editors).
Useful tests include checking if their funders are neutral and examining carefully their output (rather than their claimed aims).
A common point that tips the hand is that the ‘research’ organisation targets one sector of an industry, rather than the wider field, avoiding ones their funders are part of. USRTK likes to target what the call the ‘agrichemical industry’.
They claim their interests to be ‘our nation’s food system’ — a wider aim — but you don’t see them critiquing problems in the organic food industry. For example, Google shows USRTK has nothing to say about the widely publicised, recurring problems with Romaine lettuce in the USA. They are not examining the food system as a whole, but about a (chosen) sector of it.
They have a bias that is not reflected in the their aims.
Furthermore, how they look at that sector is also fairly obviously biased. They frequently target players in a sector, rather than issues.
They include, for example, material focusing on particular academics or writers that they label as being ‘involved’ with ‘industry’ — but only the one sector of the food industry. These read as barely disguised hit pieces. Writers are dressed up as ‘in collusion’ if they encourage use of GMOs, for example—seemingly merely for having the temerity to suggest it.
Those of us who try write independently are sadly familiar with this. Like many others, I’ve been accused of being a ‘shill’ simply for pointing out that the large majority of the GMOs will have no substantial safety issues. I have no conflicting ties, but it doesn’t stop people making the claim.
Some sectors of the organic farming industry rather than just do their own thing growing their crops, actively campaign against or try forcefully block others trying to do their thing, such as developing new varieties using modern genetics.
USRTK was founded by the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), as part of a push to oppose GMOs. OCA remains their major supporter. Opposition to GMOs is the main origin of opposition to glyphosate; it is not surprising USRTK has picked up on this.
OCA’s aims include opposition to non-organic practices. It’s reasonable to conclude that USRTK was set up with that in mind. Opposing other’s practices is adversarial, not advisory.
Others note that Gillam was let go by Reuters before US Right to Know (USRTK) employed her. They’ve suggested her departure from Reuters was a consequence of articles involving Monsanto going too far. I don’t know the back story to this, but if there is some truth to it then there is reason for other publications to be careful about her work in this space.
That she has worked for Reuters would suggest she’s very capable. Being capable unfortunately that doesn’t prevent from people from getting too wound-up with a particular line of thinking and writing biased or loaded articles, or coming out on the wrong side of science. History has plenty of examples. Even a few senior scientists stray, typically after retirement, but there are younger examples too.
I have no doubt that Gillam thinks she is doing the right thing. Advocates generally do. This doesn’t make them right, unfortunately.
I’m also under the impression the USRTK was involved in obtaining some of the material used in the Johnson v Monsanto court case.
I’m not going to chase these to the ground.
What’s important is that there are enough awkward questions to check, enough ‘loose strings’, that you’d wish as editors of otherwise good publications would be cautious.
Activism has it’s place, but good professional media ought to stand independent of it. Independence is important for good journalism. Because she works for an advocacy group, Gillam is not independent in the topic area she writes on.
She’s perfectly entitled to work for USRTK. But I struggle to believe that she should at the same time be given space in media outlets. It reduces publications to press offices for an advocacy group. Journalists are supposed to stand in between that.
The creative memoir piece
One reason someone might think Gillam’s piece acceptable is that the main body reads as if it were Johnson’s words, and hence neutral.
It’s a lovely sentiment, and I wish it were true, but it doesn’t reflect how memoir pieces are often created.
Frustratingly it’s not clear just how this piece has been developed. The introductory passage ends,
He spoke with TIME about the aftermath of his case.
Read literally this would say it was developed from spoken interviews, despite that it reads as if Johnson (not Gillam) has written the piece (and Gillam edited it). That would suggest it’s a creative memoir piece, rather than Johnson’s words transcribed.
Some memoir pieces are not an edited transcription of the person’s words or thoughts, but writing by gathering excerpts, comments and events to create a linear account that is (should be) representative of what the person said.
Done properly, that’s accepted practice.
As one example, Lee Gutkind, well regarded as a writer and editor with long expertise in creative non-fiction, has given a thumbs-up to ‘memoir’ pieces being written in this manner. (I think from The Art of Creative Nonfiction, 1996.)
But a key is that you must correctly reflect the person the writer is effectively ghosting.
I can well imagine Johnson thinking Gillam a sympathetic voice to turn to — after she works for a group who shares his opposition to Monsanto. Gillam isn’t a neutral player. For all we know the piece could be selectively excerpted and heavily edited.
You expect the verbal extras like um, erm, and extraneous passages to be filtered out. But you can’t help wondering what else has been done. We can’t resolve this, but it is an open question. It’d be much less of an issue if the piece were developed by a neutral source.
Gillam’s introductory passage
The portion we can say clearly is Gillam’s is the introductory passage.
It’s often the case that to judge a piece you need to know what’s not been said. That’s hard for those not familiar with a topic to pick up. This is also a reason a wayward piece or passage might get past an editor unless through background- and fact-checking are done.
For example, Gillam leaves out that the judge was highly critical of the conclusions drawn by the jury in her interim ruling. (Unexpectedly the judge veered off this in the actual ruling: more on this another time perhaps.) Judge Bolanos said that the plaintiff has “failed to mean his burden of producing clear and convincing evidence of malice or oppression by Monsanto”, giving a number of reasons including –
- “all of the worldwide regulators continue to find that glyphosate-based herbicides […] are safe and not carcinogenic”.
- “A lack of evidence that any Monsanto employee believed at the time that Monsanto’s GBH products cause NHL.”
- “the IARC monograph upon which the Plaintiff relied was not published until after the Plaintiff was diagnosed” (and thus couldn’t have influenced Monsanto’s views: it wasn’t around then)
There’s more Gillam has left out, but you get the drift. Omitted are things that might offer balance.
The reference to IARC’s “probable human carcinogen” grading of glyphosate that Gillam closes her introduction with is not about how frequently glyphosate causes cancer, or in what settings. Editors need to learn that the phrasing of the IARC rulings is misleading without context. It’s another point where a specialist science editor might be useful.
IARC descriptions refer to evidence levels for hazards, not risk. That phrase says that in some setting glyphosate “might”. Hazards are hazards whether or not you are exposed to risk. It does not say what that setting is, nor the risk level in that setting.
IARC does not advise on risks; that is the role of regulatory bodies. What IARC does, essentially, is to give regulatory bodies a ‘heads-up’ to potential hazards they might look into to make a call on.
With this bias in the introduction, you’re left wondering about the rest of the piece too.
Other articles at Code for life
NZ EPA is to review 40 chemicals, not glyphosate (A short piece covering the decision not to review glyphosate in NZ)
USA Court ruling on glyphosate— the role of IARC and Eugenie Sage’s call (My initial article on the ‘glyphosate’ court cases, covering the NZ response to it, and a few legal points)
Regulating GMOs: time to move forward (Some key suggestions to frame discussion.)
Green Party GM policy and discussion about GE or GMOs (The NZ Green Party should revise their stance on GM.)
Genetic modification now accepted by most New Zealanders (A survey indicates New Zealanders now accept GM food as safe.)
Is GM corn really different to non-GM corn? (Reporting other’s objections to one controversy.)
Kumara are transgenic (Transgenes occur in nature too.)
“Knowledge is merely opinion.” Storm – in cartoon and words (We all need a little humour, this is great – on homeopathy)
1. MSN has also run Gillam’s story, but prefixed it with this note,
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author on behalf of our content partner and do not represent the views of MSN or Microsoft
2. Over 44,000 actually – I incorrectly recalled the figure. The full study is of 54,000 pesticide applicators. 82% of them used glyphosate, giving a sample of approximately 44 900 people that used glyphosate-based herbicides. No link was found between using glyphosate-based herbicides and lymphoid cancer was found.
3. One take on this can be found at the Genetic Literacy Project. Others can be found online with little effort.