From Darwinius to GMOs: Journalists Should Not Let Themselves Be Played

I don’t like starting the weekend in a state of infuriation, but here we are.

On Wednesday, French scientists had a press conference to announce the publication of a study that they claimed showed that genetically modified food causes massive levels of cancer in rats.

The paper appeared in a peer-reviewed journal. That being said, outside experts quickly pointed out how flimsy it was, especially in its experimental design and its statistics. Scicurious has a good roundup of the problems at Discover’s The Crux.

But those outside experts were slow to comment in part because reporters who got to see the paper in advance of the embargo had to sign a confidentiality agreement to get their hands on it. They weren’t allowed to show it to other experts.

We’ve seen this sort of bad behavior before from scientists. In 2009, paleontologists held a spectacular press conference at the American Museum of Natural History (complete with Mayor Bloomberg in attendance) to tout a primate fossil that was the centerpiece of a big cable TV show that aired that week. The paper describing the fossil was released minutes before the conference. Only one reporter managed to get her hands on the paper earlier than that, but she had to sign a confidentiality agreement with the production company.

In both cases, the strategy was clear: prevent science writers from getting informed outside opinions, so that you can bask in the badly-reported media spotlight. Sure, the real story may emerge later, but if you get that first burst of attention, you can lock in people’s first impressions. The documentary about the primate fossil got the audience its producers were hoping for. The French scientists got the attention of the French government, and thus reinforcing opposition to genetically modified foods, although the study itself fails to make that case. Mission accomplished.

This is a rancid, corrupt way to report about science. It speaks badly for the scientists involved, but we journalists have to grant that it speaks badly to our profession, too. If someone dangles a press conference in your face but won’t let you do your job properly by talking to other scientists, WALK AWAY. If someone hands you confidentiality agreements to sign, so that you will have no choice but to produce a one-sided article, WALK AWAY. Otherwise, you are being played. Saying, “Well, everyone else is doing it” is no excuse. You do remember your mother asking what you’d do if everyone else jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, right?

Science writing has been marred in recent weeks by plagiarists and fabulists. We need to live up to our principles, and we need to do a better job of calling out bad behavior. BBC, AFP, and Reuters: you all agreed to do bad journalism, just to get your hands on a paper. For shame.

UPDATE 9/22 1:22 pm ET: Jonathan Amos, the author of the BBC’s article, just left a comment pointing out that he did not, in fact, sign a confidentiality agreement. On Twitter, he added that the BBC was offered the paper the day before the press conference in exchange for signing the agreement and declined. To which I can only say, Good on you, and please accept my apologies. But I am left wondering why the article itself describes the confidentiality agreement that journalists had to sign, and then does not explain what Amos just explained. (Also, I am curious who else signed the confidentiality agreement. Any French journalists have some insight?)

UPDATE 2 9/22 5:13 pm ET: In the commoents, Pascale Lepointe links to an article in Le Monde, which states flat out that they agreed to keep the paper confidential. Classy.

UPDATE 3 9/25 Zen Faulkes, among others, points out that the lead scientist on the paper also has a book coming out this week on GMOs. And there’s a TV documentary that’s been in the works for a while that’s about to air. Science as marketing!