Nairobi, 25th November, 2022– A research paper released by The Alliance for Science shows that Africa produced the highest proportion of misinformation on Genetically Modified Organisms(GMOs) in its media coverage compared to other continents.
Among the findings of the paper dubbed Misinformation in the media: global coverage of GMOs 2019-2021, is that almost one in five of the total content about GMOs published in Africa had misinformation, with the continent accounting for almost half of all the misinformation surveyed globally.
Furthermore, most of the articles on misinformation largely quoted some campaigners or politicians who are part of non-governmental organization (NGO) networks based in the global north, primarily Europe, where food security is not an issue.
Of all the articles about GMOs published in Africa during the study period, 95 were found to be factual while 23 articles had misinformation.
This finding raises ethical questions given the benefits that genetically engineered crops have delivered to smallholder farmers in other parts of the world and the fact that many anti-GMO groups in Africa are supported by groups based in the Global North, the report reads.
The researchers also warn that media often fall into a trap by inadvertently misinforming the public through reporting two apparently equal sides of an expert argument, noting that the use of words such as “scientists expressing doubts,” effectively undermines public trust in GMOs.
Speaking during the paper launch at Africa Science Media Centre (AfriSMC) online press briefing, Mark Lynas, Climate and Research Lead at The Alliance for Science and one of the report’s authors, noted that with food security in sub-Saharan Africa still a major challenge, it is crucial for African countries to focus on scientific communication efforts to decrease the rate of falsehoods about GMOs in African media coverage and improve the accuracy of information reaching policymakers and citizens.
“Media practitioners have a responsibility to cover the GMO issue in a scientifically responsible way to make sure that misinformation which is being pushed around by anti-GMO activists or anti-science advocates is not published without scientific review,” Lynas added.
He also advised journalists against reporting information from google search engine adding that, “Google search is not the place to go for scientific information but you could go to google scholar if you want to look at the peer review data. GMOs are not different from other foods and to deny starving people access to food to me is a humanitarian outrage. I think it’s very important for all politicians, and media houses to make sure that this issue is represented fairly.”
Given the potential readership of this misinformation, it is incumbent on the scientific community to make urgent efforts to improve its communications about genetic engineering with both the media and the general public, the authors note.
If misinformation is allowed to proliferate, resulting policy measures like GMO bans and other restrictive laws will undermine efforts to advance agricultural sustainability and food security worldwide by preventing practitioners from using this valuable technology.
The role of journalists and Scientists in GMO Information
Other experts who also spoke during the briefing hinted at the need to engage the public on the issue around genetic modification by explaining to them the science behind it, how far it has gone and what is being done in different aspects of both human health and food for consumption so that they can understand the issue at hand.
Dr. Mwimali Murenga from The Alliance for Science called for a corrective action to address the misconceptions peddled around GMOs while also addressing concerns raised by people. “As scientists, we need to take up the communication mandate instead of letting the political group do it. We need to do proactive response other than waiting to correct lies that have been peddled by the political class,” he said.
Turning to the journalists, Otula Owuor, Founding Editor ScienceAfrica, asked them to double-check information before disseminating it to the public, noting that as the people’s watchdog, science journalists have a responsibility not to peddle falsehood, lies, superstition, and myths because such misinformation may lead to losses and deaths.
“You have a responsibility for what you put out to the public. Know scientists, the work they do and you will find it very easy to screen lies from truths. You cannot say that just because a scientist said so, it is my job just to spread the information,” he advised journalists, adding that it is not enough for journalists to just report what they have been told.
According to Daniel Otunge, Director AfriSMC, journalists have a responsibility to report facts alone and to even challenge whatever they are told if they feel that the information they are told is not backed by facts, adding that “your responsibility as a journalist is to be able to question whoever is giving you the information.”
Globally, the report found a total of 535 relevant articles for the 2-year period in which the search was carried out in both mainstream and online news media. Of these, 488 were rated as factual and 47 as containing misinformation.
Overall, about 9% of the articles published on GMOs from 2019–2021 that were reviewed contained misinformation, while 91% were factually accurate. In terms of readership, the articles rated as factually accurate had a potential readership of 4.8 billion, while those containing misinformation had a reach of 256 million. In percentage terms, misinformation was therefore about 5% of the total readership.
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