My time in Seoul is winding down, with a flight out tonight. But I was up early, as usual, and watched the sun rise over the Han River, belly still full of true Korean barbecue, grilled with whole cloves of garlic over hot coals at the table and served with spicy kimchee, green salad and sweet peppers to dip in miso sauce.
The food has been heavy on the veggies, which perhaps at least partly explains why I haven't seen any fat Koreans, even in the very affluent Gangnam district where I'm staying. Is morbid obesity primarily an American phenomenon?
Attending the World Conference of Science Journalists has fed my deepening despair about the future of journalism, left me wondering if it even has one. Nearly all of the science journalism, I learned, is done by freelance writers, and as one noted, it's not feasible to dig into investigative work when you're getting paid by the word.
I heard stories of veteran newspaper journalists losing their jobs as the science sections folded, while others lamented the difficulty of selling science stories, and editors who wanted quick hits, press release rewrites and sensationalism over solid stories.
Connie St. Louis, director of the MA Science Journalism program at City University in London, offered a sobering statistic from a study by the Financial Times: In the U.S., PR people outnumber journalists by a factor of 4.6.
And as news organizations face increasing financial constraints, PR people hold greater away than ever.
She also spoke about the shady side of science, with the recent disclosures that some journals will accept articles for pay, and others require no peer review at all. And even with peer review, she said, there are questions, since prestigious journals like Nature won't share the details of their peer review process with journalists.
Scientists, too, had their complaints, with some telling me of how journalists had taken their studies out of context, misrepresented their work, even completely fabricated interviews, leading to irrevocable fallouts among researchers.
It's a bit of a mess out there in the world of scientific information, and no one, it seems, — not the scientists, not the journalists, not the citizens, not the governments, not the NGOs — is pure.
I spoke about that yesterday as a panelist in a discussion on the role of journalists in promoting tech choice for farmers, sharing how the anti-GMO movement and its deliberate misinformation campaign had washed virtually unchecked over Hawaii, leaving farmers burned and wary and the public confused. It seems decisions about technology are increasingly driven not by science, but politics, resulting in the suppression of certain technology in various countries.
As I noted, it's not for journalists to promote any particular technology, but the concept of choice, while giving farmers a voice to express what they really want.
After the panel discussion I chatted with African journalists about their success in building trust with farmers and scientific researchers, which allowed them to bring the two together. It's a role that journalists haven't traditionally played, but with agricultural extension services often underfunded, or totally absent, in developing nations, information about technology somehow needs to move from research facilities into the fields. And increasingly, journalists are doing that, through radio and television programs that share agricultural news.
As they and other African journalists told me, farmers there are eager for anything that will help boost production, because they aren't food secure, they're hungry, with the crops they grow consumed in just three to six months, leaving them scrambling for the rest of the year.
Their work left me heartened, as did the two-hour online debate I moderated for SciDev.Net on why farmers aren't using ag tech. The page got some 1,500 hits and 482 thoughtful comments from folks around the world who were eager to engage on a thoughtful topic.
I've been critical of the anti-GMO movement not because I believe biotech is the end-all and be-all, but because I'm concerned about the very real ramifications of ideological extremism. Just this week there was another report of a Greenpeace defector — Stephen Tindale, who led the group at the height of its opposition to biotechnology. The Independent reportedhim as saying:
Environmental groups that campaign against genetically modified food are taking a “morally unacceptable” position that puts “ideology” ahead of the needs of the poor. [Tindale] said he had “decided to speak out” because he believed the technology was safe and could help alleviate hunger in the developing world.
“I worry for Greenpeace and the other green groups because they could, by taking such a hard line … be seen to be putting ideology before the need for humanitarian action.”
His remarks were included in the BBC program “Panorama,” which “also uncovered further evidence that some public campaigns being waged by Western NGOs against GM in the Third World are using 'scare tactics' to mobilise opposition to the technology,” according to The Independent, which first broke news of such tactics in Uganda earlier this year.
We certainly saw that same scenario play out in Hawaii, with Center for Food Safety assuming the role that Greenpeace, which claims it's not an ideological organization, has played elsewhere in the world. Sadly, CFS continues to get far too much unquestioning coverage from Hawaii media, whose scrutiny of the GMO debate has been superficial at best.
As Connie St. Louis noted:
I want to think about calling back the muckrakers in our society. As journalists, if we can break stories and show what's really going on, people will respond.
And therein lies the ray of hope that gets me up and at my computer at daybreak, so many mornings.