James N. Klapthor

All news media outlets are not created equally. They vary in frequency, content, target audience, revenue sources, purpose, and many other ways. What is a story for some may be ignored by others. An issue to one may be irrelevant to another. How a single topic is covered for audiences can differ in as many ways as there are news outlets covering it.

For example, biotechnology is going to be covered by Food Technology far differently than it will be covered by the United Kingdom’s BBC Television, which will be different from coverage by, say, the Des Moines Register in Iowa. Editors and publishers know the purpose and the goals of their respective products, and they know their audience. Content will always reflect that. To ponder otherwise is unproductive.

In many newsrooms, a balance of opposing viewpoints is mandatory. In others, it’s recommended. In still others, it’s unnecessary or even counterproductive.

Even the purpose behind balance in journalism is misinterpreted. It is not intended to set the record straight, or to give equal coverage. It is for providing differing perspectives. Thus it is not surprising that confusion arises when audiences cannot readily distinguish all these variables and they misinterpret messages they’re receiving in the news.

Such was the case early this year when an advocacy group historically proclaiming support for consumers’ best interest reported in its national monthly magazine and Web site an extensive feature boasting the benefits of organic foods over conventional foods. Relying in great part on those with a financial stake in the growth of this segment of the market, the lengthy article made its case for organics being “best.”

Current data tell us this opinion is not rooted in the scientific knowledge-base. But to refute the bias of the publisher with IFT’s prejudice toward science would advance the issue nowhere. That would be as productive as asking IFT to champion alchemy. Instead, IFT worked a different angle.

The January 16 issue of MarketWatch—formerly a CBS-owned financial news outlet now under the ownership of Dow Jones, Inc., owners of The Wall Street Journal and other publications—took up the subject, driven by the originating coverage referenced above, and interviewed IFT experts.

Christine Bruhn, University of California at Davis, said, “The science to-date does not indicate a clear and substantial benefit from selecting organic as opposed to conventionally grown products.” Remarking that it’s true that organic foods have been found to have low levels of man-made pesticides, Bruhn noted that the same is true about conventionally grown foods. “There is no indication that people in the United States are becoming ill from pesticide residues in conventional food,” she said.

Fergus Clydesdale, University of Massachusetts, told the MarketWatch audience that if consumers are concerned about pesticide residue, they should wash their produce well, whether organic or not. And if concerned about healthy eating, they should have plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains of any kind.

The message in MarketWatch supporting current scientific perspective was so strong that it even drew on a senior official with the advocacy publishers who conceded that data supporting organic as healthier is far from overwhelming. That’s a far cry from the message its magazine reported days earlier.

Explaining the complexity of science in simple terms in small windows of opportunities is difficult and, to some, impossible. This includes news media. But IFT embraces the endeavor, understanding the importance of bringing the message of food science and technology to the public.

Bruhn broke it down like this: Natural doesn’t always mean good, she said. “What is safe [depends on] what the chemical is. You have natural chemicals that are safe and natural chemicals that are toxic.”

MarketWatch reaches an audience of 7 million business and financial news consumers each month, an audience 50% larger than the original news outlet.

by James N. Klapthor,
Media Relations Manager
[email protected]