"Communicating with the Public, Media and Policymakers on AgBiotech
AgBioView Special, July 30, 2003:
* Safe In The Ivory Tower?
* The Odd Couple: Biotechnology and the Media
* Science Reporters Miss Nuance
* Science Reporting Needs To Consider The Social Context Of Controversy
* Bringing Down The Barriers
* The Science of Working with the News Media
* Newspaper Editor's Advice on Writing Letters
* Language and Persuasion In Biotechnology Communication with The Public
* Bringing Science Communication Into Policy
* Biotech Communications - An Achievable Challenge
* Style and Substance: Communicating Agbiotech
* Educating The European Public About Biotechnology
* Malevolent Metaphors: The Misrepresentation of GM Foodstuffs?
* Training Manual On Effective Writing
(Note From Prakash: I have put together this special issue emphasizing
public communication of science issues in biotech as this is of critical
importance. The collection of articles here was picked from past AgBioView
issue postings. I encourage the readers to send in their views on how we
can communicate better to the public but also to the media, policy makers
and other stakeholders.)
Safe In The Ivory Tower?
- Peggy G. Lemaux,University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720. ASPB News,
I was stunned by the message! Yes, I had read that European field tests of
genetically engineered plants by large multinational companies were being
destroyed by protesters and that farmers' fields in India containing
genetically engineered crops were being burned to the ground. But now it
had happened in my own backyard! I replayed the message on my answering
machine. The disturbed voice of a student repeated that someone had
entered fenced, university property where his experimental plants were
growing and used machetes to cut his corn plants to the ground.
The perpetrators, or "decontaminators" as referred to themselves, were
either unaware or didn't care that the plants they destroyed were not
genetically engineered. Although a small percentage of the plants at this
university field station were genetically engineered, a part of a National
Science Foundation-funded study, the plants that were destroyed had been
created by classical breeding. They were an integral part of the graduate
student's doctoral thesis and now his research would be delayed an entire
year because of the destruction!
Can we as scientists continue to stand by and watch this happen? Can we
let misunderstandings about modern plant biology and biotechnology go
unchallenged, resulting in painful interruptions in the training of
tomorrow's scientists or stopping our own pursuits of fundamental
Over the years scientists have kept a low public profile, conducting their
research within the confines of their laboratories in universities,
publishing their research results and rarely communicating with the
general public about the implications of their work or its potential risks
or rewards to society. Utilizing funding from federal grants was
sufficient for most scientists to make a living and to train the next
generation of scientists without having to justify or explain what they
were doing to the public.
For decades, there was little to draw scientists out to engage in public
discussions about their work. Biotechnology, I believe, is changing that
situation. Few controversies in biology have caused this level of public
debate. In the late 1980's to mid-1990's in the U.S., we saw chefs
refusing to serve genetically engineered foods in their restaurants,
scientists parading in moon suits in fields containing genetically
engineered organisms and parents dumping milk from BGH-treated cows into
the streets. During this period here in the U.S., most scientists remained
comfortably in their laboratories while these events played out. Those who
chose to venture out into the public arena were often misquoted or
misrepresented, only serving to drive them further into their "ivory
Do we have the luxury of continuing to stay cloistered within our
laboratories? Of course, as scientists, we have a choice but the
consequences of that choice are clear. We can stay on the sidelines and
hope that someone else takes on the responsibility of defending this
discipline. The potential consequence of that choice might be that we lose
our ability to engage in scientific discovery using the new genetic tools
we helped to develop. Or we can become actively involved, participating in
dialogue with public opinion makers, consumers and the press on the
technology's risks and benefits in an informed and professional manner.
The choice is ours.
Deciding to do the latter is not a trivial commitment. Interacting with
the public often requires more skills (and certainly different ones) than
we, as scientists, use in our own research. Communicating effectively
requires sensitivity to the audience, knowledge of the topic and skill in
sculpting answers that are scientifically accurate, lead to minimal
misinterpretation and address the concerns of the public. Deciding to
become an active player in public dialogue requires a dedication to
learning the skills necessary to do so effectively (see below).
If we, as scientists recognize the importance of communicating with the
public and make it a priority, I believe that we can make a difference in
the debate. If we chose not to engage in this important exercise, we must
accept the consequences of remaining in our ivory towers!
The Odd Couple: Biotechnology and the Media
- The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology; http://pewagbiotech.org/
It’s been said that biotechnology isn’t rocket science — it’s actually
Reporting on biotechnology also poses unique challenges. Because
agricultural biotechnology is a controversial and evolving science, the
“story” often changes from one week to the next. For example, in the fall
of 2000 a paper about biotech corn contaminating the native corn species
in Mexico was published in the journal Nature, only to be disavowed by the
publication a few months later.
While it’s rare for prestigious journals to retract a peer-reviewed
article, the situation highlights how difficult it is to produce quality
news stories in an environment where science provokes attention from
activists and politicians. Making matters more difficult is that
biotechnology isn’t one clear-cut issue and every new technique and
organism presents different scientific and social issues. One thing that
everybody agrees on, however, is that the stories must be told.
“This is potentially revolutionary stuff the public has a right and need
to know, and the press plays a big role,” says Washington Post reporter
Marc Kaufman, who has covered the biotechnology beat. “The science is
hard, but you can boil it down." He points out that a number of science
reporters actually "do a good job."
To most journalists, doing a good job means supplying people with
information. But the process of getting information to people is fraught
with complications, including how and where stories are told, who is
telling them and how the tellers are portrayed.
Among the more intractable issues is how the media balances stories about
controversial and complex science. Traditionally, to the media, balance
means pitting one voice against another. The problem with that approach is
that sometimes a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who bases his or her
statements on years of painstaking research can be countered by an
activist who may have a strong opinion, but is far less knowledgeable,
says Martina Newell-McGloughlin, director of the University of California
Systemwide Biotechnology Research and Education Program. Contrasting
opposing voices also can tend to emphasize extreme viewpoints rather than
more moderate, perhaps less “newsworthy,” but nevertheless interesting
voices, she adds.
Compounding the problem is the fact that scientists often don’t want to
comment on hot-button issues. Cory Dean, science editor for the New York
Times, points out that many academic researchers are reluctant to speak
out because they believe it could jeopardize their chances for tenure if
their superiors consider press coverage as self-promotion.
In addition, some researchers are reluctant to speak with the press
because they fear being misquoted or having what they say taken out of
context. Nevertheless, it’s imperative that they do, says
Newell-McGloughlin. “We can’t not speak,” she says. “We can’t take the
position ‘We’re the experts: trust us.’ That’s patronizing.”
Newell-McGloughlin also acknowledges that activists do play an important
role in the media process. “There’s quite a lot of very good questions
that need to be answered,” she says.
Another facet in the debate over whether “the media” adequately cover
biotechnology is the fact that the media itself is not monolithic. Media
coverage varies widely from television to magazines to newspapers to the
Internet. Even within individual media forms, such as newspapers, biotech
stories may be presented in a spectrum ranging from short non-bylined news
pieces to long, exhaustive series that include graphics and explanatory
sidebar stories. Radio and television also handle science stories with
varying degrees of thoroughness.
“Some of the best science reporting being done today is on television,”
says Alex Jones, Director of Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center
on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy. “It’s on programs like NOVA,
not the local or national news. Television news just doesn’t have the time
or is unwilling to devote the resources needed to cover science well.”
And that is a problem, Jones says, because most people get their news from
TV. “There has been a proliferation of quasi-reporting on local news via
video news releases that are usually produced by major drug companies [and
amount to little more than a commercial],” Jones says. “Television has a
huge potential for reporting science, but the medium is easy to abuse.”
He notes the Internet is a powerful source for science reporting and
exchange of information, but it has no quality control so people searching
for science information need to be wary.
And while it’s difficult to generalize about “the media,” there do appear
to be some biotechnology coverage differences between the U.S. and
European outlets, says Newell-McGloughlin (who is originally from
In Europe, she says, the tabloids are seen as a primary news source by a
large part of the public, instead of as secondary, more sensationalistic
outlets, as they are generally viewed in the U.S. As a result, the
majority of written news coverage of biotechnology in the U.S. tends to
come from higher-quality publications and is more balanced, she says.
Others aren’t quite so sure, however, and say the U.S. media has tipped
too far in favor of the biotechnologists. “The bottom line is that the
voices promoting (biotechnology) are more prominent than those that
object,” says Susanna Priest, who monitors media coverage of biotechnology
at Texas A&M University. Her finding contradicts an assumption by many
scientists that activists get more play than scientists, she says. “It’s
really about trust in institutions,” Priest notes. “The U.S. has an
enormous faith in industry, but not in environmental groups.”
Priest believes the reason that environmental concerns in Europe are
voiced louder than in the U.S. is that Americans place more trust in
institutions like government, regulators and industry. Europeans, on the
other hand, have lived through a number of food crises and tend to have
less faith in regulators, she notes.
There is also a tendency for some media, and those involved in these
issues, to cast players in over-simplified roles, says Priest. For
instance, some scientists insist that the only people who object to
biotech are those who are not informed about science. Priest says her
studies indicated even knowledgeable people sometimes raise concerns about
Another difference in biotechnology coverage in America, according to
Newell-McGloughlin is how medical biotechnology stories are told, versus
agricultural biotechnology. “Medical science stories are covered in terms
of hope, while quite often food is covered in terms of warning,” she says.
That difference points to the key to what gets a story printed or
broadcast in the first place: telling a story that interests the public.
Bill Lambrecht, a reporter for the St. Louis Post Dispatch and author of
the book Dining at The New Gene Café, says that’s the yardstick against
which every story is measured, and lately very few biotechnology stories
make the cut.
“After 9/11, genetically-modified organisms became one of those many
issues that was submerged,” says Lambrecht. It’s not just that terrorism
and international politics are taking up the space on pages and airtime on
radio and television, he says. “I think that in the aftermath, the public
went through a redefinition of risk. A lot of people have only so much
capacity for concern over the threats that are out there. Many lesser
threats have diminished in the minds of people.”
Still, the Post's Kaufman believes the issues are important enough that
the stories will still be told. And, for better or worse, the media is how
most people get their information. As a result, he believes the media
shoulders a great responsibility for getting those stories out.
For more information, please visit Nature; the The Washington Post; theThe
New York Times; the St. Louis Post Dispatch; and The Pew Initiative on
Food and Biotechnology online.
'Does the Popular Media Adequately Cover Highly Polarized Scientific
Science Reporters Miss Nuance
- Jim Aidala, President, AgroChemical/Biotech, JSC, Inc.
Does the media adequately cover science? Jim Aidala has a one-word answer:
No. Aidala, a former Environmental Protection Agency Assistant
Administrator believes there are two reasons the media is currently
failing the public. “First, the media has a strong desire to get the
‘other side of the story’ even though it may not represent the thinking of
most people in the scientific field,” Aidala says.
The inclination to present conflicting sides of an issue makes great copy,
Aidala notes, but it can muddy rather than clarify an issue. He points out
that this is a particular problem when reporters look for a counter
opinion for scientific elements of a controversy — some of which have
risen to the level of consensus. In those cases, you can end up with a
number of well-informed, well-regarded scientists being countered by a
communications spokesperson for an activist group, he says. “In some ways,
it’s an easy and lazy way to cover a controversial story.”
But, Aidala sees an even more important reason why scientific
controversies get short shrift in the modern media: scientific
controversies are rarely just about science.
“The most tricky science questions have a lot of nuance — a lot of which
isn’t strictly scientific,” Aidala notes. “If there are 15 key things in a
given controversy, it is difficult to reflect all that complicated reality
into a 10 column inch story or 2 minute news piece.”
“When I hear the words ‘scientific controversy,’ I automatically think
there is some kind of policy implication for a particular scientific
finding,” Aidala says. “In other words, people are seeing some finding as
relevant to their lives. And there are human judgments involved in
figuring out what to do about that finding.”
The problem is, Aidala notes, most reporters don’t understand what goes
into making those human judgments and, as a result, don’t adequately
convey those realities to the public.
“For many important health issues the whole concept of risk is lost in the
story because journalists often didn’t pay attention in their statistics
class,” Aidala notes. “To me, that is one of the underlying reasons why
scientific controversy is so poorly covered in the media. Tough science
issues are difficult to understand and many reporters are ill-equipped to
translate these stories into the modern media format.”
Aidala admits that this problem is abating as more specialized journalism
programs have been established. Unfortunately, these specialized programs
don’t solve the problem because many scientific controversies contain
considerable political elements that remain unreported.
“Scientific journalists may feel they are on safer turf or are more
personally interested in the science of the story,” Aidala says. “One of
the really interesting things about regulating science-based issues [as
opposed to some other issues] is the extent to which Congress dumps these
problems in the lap of the bureaucracy. That is a story which is rarely
Science Reporting Needs to Consider The Social Context of Controversy
- Sheila Jasanoff , Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology
Studies at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government
When Sheila Jasanoff considers whether modern media are equipped to handle
scientific controversy, she finds herself first considering the definition
of a scientific controversy.
“I believe there is a difference between a scientific controversy which
occurs in the lab among active scientists in a particular field and a
social controversy with substantial scientific content,” Jasanoff says.
“If we are really considering a social controversy with scientific
content, then the scientific dispute is often the surrogate for
controversy over socially relevant and deep-seated value differences.”
The inherent problem, as Jasanoff sees it, is that media reporting tends
to present a distorted image of science. “These ‘scientific controversies’
are often reported as binary problems and that oversimplifies what are
usually very complex situations,” she points out.
By focusing on one part of the problem — the scientific content of an
issue such as genetically modified foods, reporters end up ignoring a host
of socially important aspects, such as intellectual property protections,
wealth and knowledge disparities, and the ethics of the technology. As a
result, many of these important facets of the debate aren’t adequately
reflected in the media.
In addition, she sees the media convention of providing two opposing views
— often times presenting them with equal weight — as a disservice to the
public. “I believe that the media has improved,” she notes. “And, that
much more is being done to show the full range of opinions and where they
are coming from, but there is still more that could be done.”
Jasanoff also notes that Americans tend to be skeptical about experts and
often don’t trust them to analyze data without bias. Jasanoff believes
that by ignoring the complexities of many so-called scientific debates,
modern media deprive the public of the total context in which science is
produced, exacerbating the public’s general skepticism.
Jasanoff notes that science has become important enough that people study
the scientific enterprise itself. She thinks that reporters should look to
the people who study the social and historical aspects of science to
provide a more comprehensive picture of the issues at stake in a so-called
“In any area of science there is a diversity of scientific practice and
standards that change over time,” she notes. “Even the most eminent
scientists will tell you that their findings are always provisional. For
reporters to lose sight of this does a real disservice and overlooks the
infinitely rich and very human context in which science is done.”
Bringing Down The Barriers
- Jaap Willems, Nature 422, 470 ; April 3, 2003
'Public communication should be part of common scientific practice.'
The public is fascinated by science, particularly astronomy. But despite
most researchers recognizing the necessity of communicating to the public,
many of them fail to do so. Although the media is the main source of
scientific information for most people, scientists throw up barriers to
their work being publicized. Scientists need to popularize their subject
as, sooner or later, society will have to deal with the results. Not only
do people need to keep up to date with rapidly changing knowledge, but
ignorance often leads to fear.
Although some scientists accept that the public must be kept informed and
interested if they are to obtain funding, many are puzzled by the
suggestion that the popularization of, for example, chemistry is important
for creating public support. Surely science no longer needs to justify
itself, they ask? Furthermore, many researchers would -- quite wrongly --
treat with derision the idea that scientists need to popularize their work
if they are to reach fellow professionals in their own or related fields.
Yet various surveys have revealed that communication between fellow
professionals often takes place through the mass media.
Most public communication about science is channelled through daily
newspapers, special-interest magazines and television. In the Netherlands,
articles written by researchers themselves are occasionally published in
newspapers or in popular science magazines such as Natuur & Techniek and
Greenpeace. (!!) However, about 90% of these articles are written by
science journalists, most of whom do not have scientific qualifications.
And according to surveys in the Netherlands, Germany and the United
Kingdom, the public is dissatisfied with the media's reporting of
innovations in science and technology. Media reports can heighten public
fear of certain areas, for example biotechnology, according to
A different approach is needed. Science communication professionals have
long advocated a shift from the one-way channel of the mass media, towards
interactivity -- science and discovery centres, public lectures and
company or institution open days -- to bring researchers into direct
contact with the general public. If nothing else, the resultant dialogue
is a useful addition to media reporting in conveying accurate information
and reducing fear of new technologies.
But scientists must also find ways of improving communication through the
media, as this is familiar to many and is the most efficient way to reach
large numbers of people. Yet our survey (see footnote) reveals barriers to
such communication, such as unreasonable demands from researchers that
journalists' reporting must be full and complete, or the lack of
appropriate expertise by journalists -- ignorance of basic technical
terms, or a desire to sensationalize or exaggerate the discovery.
Management and public-relations (PR) departments frequently block contacts
between scientists and the media. Our survey indicates that only one-third
of researchers in the Netherlands can decide what they tell journalists.
The rest have to defer to managers and PR departments, even in
universities. The PR department initiates contact with the press. Of
course, PR officials have a better understanding of the media and more
contacts than scientists. Nevertheless, many Dutch scientists do not want
to help PR departments popularize their research as they would prefer to
do it themselves.
PR officials, of course, are usually only interested in good news about
the research in their institutions. Journalists are more interested in bad
news (such as risks associated with genetic modification) and would prefer
to publicize details before the full work is published in scientific
literature. These separate, selective agendas provide further barriers to
the communication of science.
That 90% of scientists in our survey believe that a journalist's reporting
should be full and complete, and the journalists should allow the
scientists to check their story and make requested changes before
publication betrays an ignorance of journalistic methods. As journalists
would naturally not agree to these conditions, scientists are very
reticent about cooperating with the press. Virtually none of our
respondents knew the names of the science editors of the major Dutch
quality newspapers, many of whom have been writing about science for
Finally, almost half of our respondents had never written an article for a
wider general readership, while a further 40% did so only very rarely.
Only 10% regularly write articles about their own speciality for a general
readership, a fraction that included a disproportionate number of
ecologists writing about environmental issues. Although not every
scientist can be expected to write popular and/or accessible articles
about their work regularly, and the media could not handle the resultant
volume of material, the fact that so few biologists take an active part in
popularizing their work highlights, once again, their lack of interest in
Many scientists, used to writing scientific articles, lack the rather
different writing skills needed to bring their work to a wider audience.
In addition to this, many feel that popularization would reduce their
status among their peers. Yet almost every university offers courses in
science communication, and although scientists go on these courses, they
are generally regarded as being on the margins of university education.
If we truly want the media to expand and improve its coverage of science
and technology, more researchers need training in public communication and
must be prepared to use these skills by participating in public events,
writing popular, accessible articles, and cooperating constructively with
science journalists. --
Jaap Willems is in the Department of Science Communication, Vrije
Universiteit Amsterdam, 1081 HV, The Netherlands. Further information
available in Biologen en Journalisten (Biologists and Journalists) by Jaap
Willems, Betteke van Ruler, Linda Hartman and Neil van der Veer (Enschede,
Amsterdam, 2002). See also http://www.bio.vu.nl/WillemsinNature.pdf.
The Science of Working with the News Media
- ASPB News, Jan- Feb 2003; www.aspb.org
The prospect of talking with journalists can be somewhat daunting for
scientists, just as it is for many people in all other walks of life.
However, scientists and reporters have more in common than some people may
As Terri Lomax explained at an ASPB media workshop sponsored by the
Committee on Public Affairs last summer in Denver, traits often found in
both scientists and journalists include free and independent thinking,
competitive natures, and curiosity as well as higher levels of education.
Botany and plant pathology professor at Oregon State University, Lomax is
now directing a public education program on biotechnology with the support
of the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences. Lomax notes that working with
the media is key to communicating with the public and believes that some
advance preparation can help the media contact go more smoothly.
She said that in preparing for an interview, a scientist should learn more
about the reporter, the publication, and the readership. A scientist needs
to have a goal in mind for the interview and deliver a focused message.
Advance practice in answering expected potential questions can contribute
to more accurate and confident answers during the actual interview.
If the reporter attempts to divert a scientist from the point or poses a
hypothetical question, it's important for the scientist to stay on message
and politely transition back to the relevant points the scientist wants to
make. "As Secretary of State Colin Powell said, 'Remember, they
[reporters] get to ask the questions, but you get to give the answers,' "
Lomax worked tirelessly throughout the summer and early fall to educate
the media and the public about the effects that Oregon ballot issue
Measure 27 could have on consumers and producers. Measure 27 would have
required mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods in Oregon. Peggy
Lemaux, then chair of the ASPB Committee on Public Affairs, coordinated
the media workshop. Lemaux is Cooperative Extension Specialist at the
University of California at Berkeley. She promotes public understanding of
biotechnology through an active outreach program.
Lemaux said responding to calls from journalists merits top priority. "I
will drop everything to talk to the press," Lemaux said. She noted that
too often, the media use misleading terminology such as "Franken-food" and
"killer corn." Scientists need to use more accurate terminology in
discussing genetically modified foods and should not repeat misleading
terms if they are used by a reporter in a question.
Denver Post science writer Diedtra Henderson told ASPB members at the
workshop that they need to convey their key points to the journalist.
Scientists should be able to answer questions on their research such as,
"What does it matter?" Scientists need to convey to the reporter what the
relevance of their research is to the public. Henderson implied that this
should not be difficult to do, because people have a lifelong interest in
In talking to a journalist, scientists should speak as if they are
speaking to a friend, Henderson advised. However, it is important to know
that information from the scientist is generally not considered off the
record if the off-the-record request is made subsequent to the scientist's
actual comment. Off-the-record comment agreements between scientists and
journalists need to be agreed to by both parties in advance of the comment
being made by the scientist. Some media relations advisers also warn that
if you don't want to see a comment to a reporter in print, it is best to
simply not make the comment.
Alan McHughen, biotechnology specialist/geneticist, University of
California, Riverside, related some of his experiences in working with the
media. Author of Pandora's Picnic Basket: The Potential and Hazards of
Genetically Modified Foods, McHughen interacts frequently with the media.
McHughen said a survey seeking public views on the credibility of
different sources found that Americans have considerable respect for
scientists and family physicians. "However, don't assume that you'll
always have this. Don't be arrogant," he advised.
Writing letters to the editor to cite a need for corrections in a science
story is one of the ways that McHughen has found effective for getting to
know journalists. He said that although his letter might not get
published, it is likely the editor will have the reporter call him to
clarify any facts in dispute noted in the letter. At that point, a contact
is made and McHughen can be identified by the writer as a valuable source
in a particular subject area, such as genetic modification of foods.
When writing an op-ed piece for a newspaper, the scientist has a larger
word count to work with than for a letter to the editor. You can "let
yourself go a little bit" in delivering your message, McHughen noted.
Accessing the Media and Congress
'Newspaper Editor's Advice on Writing Letters to the Editor and Meeting
with Newspaper Editorial Boards'
Writing Letters to the Editor
Lynnell Burkett, Editorial Page Editor of the San Antonio Express-News
explains that the Express-News, one of the larger metropolitan daily
newspapers in the nation with a daily circulation of nearly 200,000
(nearly 300,000 on Sundays), prints only about one of every five letters
to the editor it receives. However, writers can obtain a success rate much
better than 20 percent in getting their letters from pen to newspaper page
if they follow a few simple guidelines.
Maximum Number of Words
Newspapers impose a maximum number of words limit on the letters they
publish on editorial pages. For the Express-News, the limit is 250 words
per letter. Many letters never get published, simply because the writer
did not adhere to the limit on number of words. A maximum of 250 words is
in the range of what many other newspapers follow. Longer op-ed
commentaries can range from 450 to 1,000 words for different newspapers.
To find out the limit for your newspaper, simply call the newspaper's
phone number listed in the local public telephone directory and ask for
the maximum number of words accepted for letters to the editor or for
op-ed commentaries. (Op-ed stands for opposite the editorial page. Many
newspapers have an op-ed page immediately following and facing the page
that has the editorials and letters to the editor.)
Include Your Address and Telephone Number
If you don't include your address and telephone number, don't expect to
see your letter to the editor or longer, op-ed commentary printed. The San
Antonio Express-News and many other newspapers don't publish your address
and daytime phone number with the letter, but they need this information
to contact writers for confirmation. "So don't send a letter before
heading off for a three-week vacation," Burkett advised at a past ASPB
Public Affairs workshop. Writers generally don't hear whether their
letters are selected until at least a few days after it is received by the
Handwrite Your Name
Remember to include your signature in ink at the bottom of your letter.
Letters that request use of initials only are not published. The theory is
that individuals should take responsibility for their opinions.
Make it Readable
If editors can't decipher the handwriting in the body of the letter, they
can't publish it. Typewritten or computer-generated letters avoid this
Stick to One Major Point
If you are writing a letter about support for plant research, don't
digress into other topics. Editors are looking for letters on one
Assume Some Degree of "Goodwill"
"We are not perfect, and try as we might, we will, on occasion, write a
misleading headline, leave out a word or cut a sentence in your favor. It
is not a plot. We are not out to sabotage you or your letter. We did not
treat your letter with disrespect because we disagreed with it. We have, I
assure you, been charged with all of the above," Burkett said.
Members of Congress Read Local Editorial Pages
A letter to the editor of your local daily and weekly newspapers can be of
more interest to your members of Congress than letters to national
newspapers. Burkett pointed out that a U.S. Senator from Texas responded
directly to the Express-News the same day a letter to the editor referring
to the Senator was published in the newspaper. In comparison, a national
newspaper like The New York Times does not have circulation among voters
in Congressional districts outside New York that even approaches the size
of the circulation of most local newspapers. It is also generally more
difficult to get a letter published in a national newspaper. Keep an
emphasis on your local newspapers.
Interacting with Editorial Boards
Just the thought of attempting to schedule a meeting with the editorial
board of the local newspaper can be intimidating to many people. Burkett
said she has observed the intimidating effect editorial board meetings
have on many people. Some groups of individuals walk into these meetings
treating them as pressure-packed events where each participant must speak
in a particular order and say only a few words. Some people find even
approaching editorial boards so daunting that they hire public relations
firms to set up the meetings. It is better to relax and aim for a normal
conversation flow with the newspaper editorial board.
To arrange the meeting, call up the editorial page editor, explain briefly
the topic you'd like to discuss, the name of the colleague(s) who will
accompany you and ask for an appointment. The editorial board meeting
might include simply an editorial page editor and the reporter who covers
your area. Although you probably won't walk out of the meeting with a
commitment for a lead editorial supporting your views, you'll have
provided an important perspective for the editorial and science writers to
consider the next time they do write on a topic affecting science. You
also will have established a line of communication with the local science
writer and your editorial page editor which could lead to future
interaction. You may find that you are one of very few scientists from any
discipline who has met with your newspaper editorial board.
The ASPB Committee on Public Affairs members and ASPB staff are working to
bring more information on plant research to the editorial pages of daily
and weekly newspapers. If you have questions on writing letters to the
editor, please send an e-mail message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
As Burkett observed, "I'm convinced letters are one of the best-read and
most worthwhile features. Nowhere are we more closely connected to our
Language and Persuasion In Biotechnology Communication with The Public:
'How To Not Say What You're Not Going To Not Say And Not Say It'
- Steven B. Katz , North Carolina State University; (Excerpts Below)
The purpose of this paper is to begin to explore the role of language in
biotechnology communication with the public by briefly analyzing in a
particular press release how organization, style, and diction convey
values and emotions that can undermine intended meaning. These are not
problems of grammar or usage or mechanics or spelling, commonly associated
with "bad writing." Nor are these simply problems of clarity or logic.
Rather, these communication problems are the result of rhetorical choices
of organization, style, and/or diction that are ultimately based on
unconscious and often flawed assumptions about the role of language,
values, and emotion in communication and decision-making.
While there are differences between other controversies and those
surrounding the acceptance of agricultural biotechnology by consumers here
and abroad, the general parameters of these controversies can reveal
deep-seated assumptions, as well as the pitfalls of communication with the
public. One almost universal feature is the public fear of possible long
term and as yet unknown risks to health and the environment that no amount
of scientific assurance seems able to assuage. Despite statements to the
contrary by researchers and officials, the public by and large perceives
decisions to be based as much on politics as science. The public questions
the role of industry in the decision making as a conflict of interest. And
organized protests, disruptions of meetings, threats of violence, and
damage to equipment sometimes ensue.
For their part, researchers attempt to provide the public with clear,
up-to-date information, and to explain the scientific logic of their
reasoning. Government agencies attempt to deal with the crisis in public
confidence by developing expensive public information and education
campaigns. But these usually are massive failures. In the face of
seemingly insurmountable resistance, early optimism on the part of
scientists and public officials gives way to incredulity, outrage, and
contempt for the public that now appears ill informed and unreasonable
(Katz & Miller, 1996).
A press release delivered before the National Press Club by former
Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman (1999) noted similar public reaction
to the issue of genetically modified foods (GMFs): a fear of possible and
as yet unknown long term risks to health and the environment; a distrust
of the decision-making process that consumers see as much political and
economic as scientific; and a distrust in the role of industry in
developing biotechnology and assessing its safety. The speech also noted
"great consumer resistance and cynicism toward biotechnology," protests,
and violence and damage to test plots overseas. To attempt to deal with
these issues, the Secretary proposed five principles, including "complete
and open public involvement; the establishment of 'regional centers'
around the country;" and "a strong public education effort to show
consumers the benefits of these products and why they are safe." Despite
public resistance, the speech attempted to express great optimism not only
in biotechnology, but also its acceptance. "We have to ensure public
confidence in general, consumer confidence in particularS*I believe
farmers and consumers will eventually come to see the economic,
environmental, and health benefits of biotechnology products".
Bringing Science Communication Into Policy
- David Dickson, SciDev.Net, Feb 17, 2003
Science communication has become a major factor in the formulation of
policy on science-related issues, not just a commentary on the way such
issues are addressed.
One of the most significant images in UK debates over the past 20 years
about the relationship between science and society was a photograph taken
in May 1990 of Britain's then agriculture minister, John Gummer, feeding a
hamburger to his somewhat bemused and reluctant daughter, Cordelia.
The country was at the time in the midst of its crisis over so-called Mad
Cow Disease, but the government -- prompted by the farming industry -- was
insisting that there was no way that the disease could pass to humans. The
photograph encapsulated the headlines that went with it, indicating that a
government minister was so confident about this position that, even as a
responsible parent, he was prepared feed British beef to his daughter.
The rest, as they say, is history. It was not long before Gummer, and
indeed the whole of the British government, had to eat its words -- almost
literally -- and admit that they had got it wrong; BSE indeed can pass
into the food chain, with tragic consequences. Furthermore this particular
picture has come to haunt Gummer -- who ironically has a good record as an
effective defender of the environment -- the Conservative party and
government public relations officers ever since.
With the benefit of hindsight, the manipulation is obvious. We are now
well aware of the function of this image as well as the dubious claim to
scientific legitimacy on which it was intended to be based. Indeed the
subsequent realisation by the British public of the extent to which it had
been misled by this particular picture, and indeed the whole government
handling of the BSE debacle in Britain, is widely blamed for a significant
drop in the public's trust of both politicians and the scientists who
But the picture also highlights a critical issue about the way that the
media frames, and thus helps to mould, public perceptions of key issues at
the interface between science and society. The issue for those involved in
science communication, both in developed and developing countries, is how
to balance a desire to inform the public about the scientific perspective
on controversial issues -- such as BSE or genetically-modified crops --
with an awareness of the political interests that may lie on each side of
such a dispute.
The challenge for society more generally is to recognise that the practice
of science communication has become a significant participant in the
formulation of policy on science-related issues, and no longer merely
provides a commentary on the way such issues are addressed.
Beyond the respect for truth. At its crudest level, of course, science
communication must be concerned with the accurate transmission of
information. This includes not only communicating the facts produced by
science, but equally reporting as accurately as possible on the
uncertainties attached to such knowledge, as well as on the impacts of
science on society -- and society's response to such impacts. All this is
relatively conventional wisdom with the science communication community,
even if it acknowledges a truth -- that achieving a proper public
understanding of science is a two-way process that must include the
scientist's better understanding of the public -- that is only just being
recognised within the scientific community itself.
To quote the words of Alan I. Leshner, for example, the chief executive
office of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, writing
in a recent issue of Science: "We need to engage the public in a more open
and honest, bi-directional dialogue about science, technology and their
products, including not only their benefits but also their limits, perils
and pitfalls. We need to respect the public's perspective and concerns,
even when we do not fully share them, and we need to develop a partnership
that can respond to them."
But there is a need to go beyond this, and to inquire how the process of
developing a partnership with the public works in practice, and who will
be engaged in establishing it. Here it is necessary to acknowledge that
the role of the science communicator, as Leshner accepts, is not one of
simply conveying the 'truth' to the public (any more than the role of a
scientist can be defined simply as discovering scientific 'facts'). Rather
it is to communicate significant facts -- and, where space allows, the
nature of this significance.
In other words, the task of any science communicator is essentially one of
extracting significance from a mass of scientific evidence, policy
documents, and headline-grabbing statements from individuals and
institutions that may or may not have a vested interested in the outcome.
In doing this, I suggest, those engaged in the communication of science --
particularly when this is conceived of as a two-way process -- becomes
proxies for the public when it comes to interpreting and articulating the
relationship between science and society, or to put it another way,
between knowledge and power.
Science communication and policy-making. The terms 'interpreting' and
'articulating' are both somewhat abstract concepts. They imply that the
way the media handles science has actually become an important
constitutive component of the policy-making process on science-related
issues. The media does more than just report policy choices to the public
on such issues, or even on the responses of the public to the policy
choices they are being presented with. In a significant way the media also
helps to frame both the policy issues and the public responses to them.
This is illustrated by the intense debates taking place in the developing
world over topics such as GM crops or even 'biopiracy', itself a term
largely coined by those who might be described as communicators of
science. In each case, the way that such issues are presented to the
public becomes the way that the issues are seen by the public. And these
perceptions in turn become a major factor in political decision-making,
particularly in an era when mass communication has made every decision
taken by a politician the subject of close public scrutiny.
The full implications of this shift remain far from clear. Nevertheless it
is already possible to suggest that informed communication about science
must become a central component of development strategy. Without such
communication, trust in political decisions on science-related issues will
be gradually dissipated. With such communication there is no guarantee
that this trust will necessarily be maintained. But at least the basis
will have been laid on which such trust can be rebuilt. --
This comment is based on a talk delivered to the annual meeting of
American Association for the Advancement of Science on 17 February 2003 in
Biotechnology Communications - An Achievable Challenge
- International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech
Applications, Dec 7, 2001
For people in Asia- whether they are wheat farmers on the Ganges Plain of
India, rice farmers on the terraces of Bali, cotton growers in China or
inhabitants of fast-paced cities like Singapore or Tokyo - the
implications of biotechnology will be significant.
Biotechnology is not seen as a panacea for all the region's food
production problems -the supply of food is a complex process, and
biotechnology offers one part of a multi-faceted strategy to meet the
growing demands for more and better quality foods. Nevertheless,
biotechnology does offer the potential for better crop yields, reduced use
of chemical inputs, less environmental degradation, as well as the
development of innovative food products, such as foods with improved
nutritional value or better food quality and safety.
However, stakeholders in this new and rapidly evolving area of science and
technology often feel poorly equipped to deal with the new language,
scientific principles and understanding required of them. There is a clear
need for more educational resources on this important topic area.
That is why the Asian Food Information Centre (AFIC) and the International
Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) have
joined together to develop Food Biotechnology: a Communications Guide to
Enhance Understanding, which has been developed specifically for the Asia
The Guide is intended to provide leaders in the scientific, medical, food
and agricultural communities and educators involved in these areas, with
an essential resource kit. The kit is designed to provide the most
scientifically sound and up-to-date information about biotechnology
products and processes and most importantly guidelines on biotechnology
For example, research has demonstrated that the use of very technical
language, although accurate, can confuse and even alarm non-scientists,
evoking negative reactions. Food biotechnology needs to be discussed in
everyday terms. It is important for people to understand that the
technology is about seeds that are planted in the ground and that that
grow into plants just like any other plants. If normal everyday language
is not used it sends the message that the technology is about experiments
undertaken just in the laboratory and it gives a false impression of food
The understanding and acceptance of any science or technology including
food biotechnology can change dramatically depending upon the language
used. The preferred scientific term for defining "recombinant DNA
technology" is biotechnology or green technology. In many Asian countries,
the most readily understandable terms include food biotechnology or
genetically modified foods. Abbreviations such as "GM food" or GMOs are
perceived as jargon. Such terminology may lead to confusion,
miscommunication and even misinterpretation of the topic and related
The Guide aims to raise awareness of this communications issue, and
provides lots of practical advice and resources to overcome this problem.
For example the Guide includes lists of "Words to use" and "Words to lose"
, and a slide presentation which may be adapted according to audience
needs and interests.
The Guide also provides: historical development and context of food
biotechnology developments; definitions of key terms such as allergenic
proteins, genomes; brief explanations of fundamental principles of food
biotechnology such as substantial equivalence, safety assessment - an
extensive directory of resources and sources of further country and
topic-specific information - a collection of quotes by prominent leaders
and scientists on the current and potential impact of food biotechnology.
The Guide may be downloaded from the AFIC or at
http://www.isaaa.org/press%20release/Food_Biotech.htm . It is also
available as a CD-ROM on request
Style and Substance: Communicating Agbiotech
- Feb. 2001 AgBiotech Bulletin & Infosource Vol 9, Issue 1
On one side, we have children in Monarch butterfly costumes accompanied by
activists with a shaky premise; on the other, a scientist with charts,
graphs and a compelling body of evidence. In the age of the 10-second
sound bite, who wins?
According to rhetorician Dr. Jennifer MacLennan, the contest isn't even
close. "There was a time when people trusted science," she says. "Now
there is suspicion, as ethical questions aren't being dealt with, or even
The Rhetoric of Fear Anti-biotech activists have tapped into a powerful
rhetoric as old as Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein - the scientist
arrogantly pursuing forbidden knowledge, playing God, and paying the
ultimate price for his hubris. The plot line is still popular in horror
movies today.Add to this modern scientific and regulatory disasters like
thalidomide and mad cow disease, plus actors in lab coats hawking
everything from soap to diet supplements, and you have a profoundly
"We don't trust the science because we can't trust what the marketers do
with the science," MacLennan says. According to MacLennan, who holds the
D.K. Seaman Chair in Technical and Professional Communications at the
University of Saskatchewan's College of Engineering, facts by themselves
don't persuade. This is because the average person doesn't have the skill
or knowledge base to know if the facts are true. People may insist they
make decisions based on logic but they really listen to their gut - which
reacts to emotion. And with emotion, the kid in the butterfly suit trumps
the scientist behind a microphone every time.
"It's a far more complicated question than 'what are the lab results',"
MacLennan says. "The very nature of science is that the last word is never
in, but we must act as though it is." She warns that while the public may
be unsophisticated in their knowledge, they are extremely sensitive to
attempts to manipulate their opinion. "Attention has to be paid to
reassuring people on the level where they're hurting. More spin doctoring
Understanding versus Persuasion This idea is consistent with public
relations theory, in particular, a model described as "two way symmetrical
communication" by James Grunig in the seminal public relations work,
Excellence in Public Relations & Communication Management. In this model,
the goal is not selling or persuading, but understanding - a dialogue.
"The public should be just as likely to persuade the organization's
management to change attitudes or behavior as the organization is likely
to change the publics' attitudes or behavior," Grunig writes. This model
is held up as the most preferred way to do public relations. Research
shows organizations that use this model enjoy success in the public arena
as well as at the bottom line.
An Industry Response According to Ray Mowling, information, not advocacy,
is the aim of the Council for Biotechnology Information (CBI). Its goal is
to reach opinion leaders and food shoppers with the "other side of the
story" about biotech.
The CBI is pro-biotech, stressing the benefits of the technology. This is
done through advertising in print and on television, a Web site,
information packages, and support for other similarly minded
organizations. CBI advertisements started running in Canada last May, as
part of a three to five year campaign. Similar efforts are underway in the
U.S. and Mexico. Mowling presented some initial materials and preliminary
results at the Ag-West Biotech Annual General Meeting last October.
Campaign tracking has already yielded information on what does and doesn't
"For the opinion leaders, people want and are looking for more detailed
information," Mowling says. "The consumer profile is different. Some
people don't want information; they just want to hear from a trusted
authority that what they're eating is safe." The overall aim is to create
a receptive environment for biotechnology. Mowling cites educational
efforts like the demonstration lab at the Saskatchewan Agricultural
Biotechnology Information Centre (SABIC), and the demonstration farm run
by the Centre for Safe Food at the University of Guelph as examples. "If
we don't have that positive environment, we're not going to get an
opportunity to grow and improve the technology," he says. Scientists as
Communicators Another initiative is aimed at the people who know the
technology best: scientists. Michael Bechtel, Manager of the Agricultural
Biotechnology Initiative (abi) at the University of Saskatchewan, helps
train scientists to speak to non-technical audiences and the media.
"The language of biotech, the language of science, is not the Queen's
English as most know it," he says. "Most scientists are not aware they are
speaking in a language different than everyone else." Bechtel explains
that before biotechnology came along, people didn't think too much about
crop farming. If they thought about it at all, they trusted the plant
breeders and regulators to do their jobs. A new variable is the
anti-biotech movement - people that simply don't trust the technology for
whatever reason. These groups don't necessarily know any more about
biotech, but spread fear. This doesn't automatically reflect the general
"The general public doesn't understand the technology," Bechtel says.
"What we need is to give an honest translation of the information so
everyone can understand what's going on." "It's not necessarily that
they're afraid of it. They don't understand it."
The overall mandate of abi is to help scientists take their ideas from the
lab to the market. Bechtel says that after extensive consultation with the
research community, effective communication was identified as one of the
most urgent needs. Courses were developed to give scientists hands-on
training in speaking with the media, managing issues, and communicating in
a crisis. The courses are designed for small to medium sized companies -
less than 50 employees. This reflects the character of Saskatchewan's
biotech community and about 80 per cent of the industry as a whole.
However, Bechtel reports people have come from as far away as Alberta and
Ontario to take advantage of abi, and inquiries have come from the U.S.,
southeast Asia and India. So far, about 75 people have taken the courses.
The ultimate aim is not propaganda, or even persuasion. It's making sure
the correct information is heard, so people can make informed decisions.
"We have to be perceived as balanced and non-prejudicial, presenting the
information in a fair and balanced manner," Bechtel says. "That's what
we're trying to achieve."
(Resources: The Council for Biotechnology Information at
http://whybiotech.com; The Agricultural Biotechnology Initiative at
http://www.abi.usask.ca, Dr. Jennifer MacLennan at email@example.com,
The Centre for Safe Food at http://www.plant.uoguelph.ca/safefood and
Excellence in Public Relations & Communication Management, James E. Grunig
[contributor and editor].)
Educating The European Public About Biotechnology
- Agbiotech Bulletin Volume 9, Issue 4, May, 2001 Ag-West Biotech Inc.;
Some ways of teaching biotechnology are clearly more effective than
others. But given the diversity among people, particularly when we
consider the geographic expanse and the cultural and political differences
across Europe, is it realistic to think that we can develop a short list
of techniques that will work best for everyone? This is the challenge
faced by a network of about twenty people who are working on a project
called: Educating the European Public about Biotechnology. The project was
initiated a year ago with funding from the European Commission. The goal
is to document what is being done in each member country and what
information is available to the public from all sources. Then the group is
to recommend what works best to educate people about biotechnology. I was
fortunate to be able to attend their latest meeting and provide them with
specific information about Ag-West Biotech's activities and a general idea
of what resources are available about biotechnology in Canada from various
The group itself is quite diverse. Several are researchers associated with
universities and affiliated with departments ranging from ethnology to
microbiology; sociology to biotechnology. Others are regulatory,
communications or technology transfer specialists; one is a publisher and
two are high school teachers. Drawn together by a common vision of the
positive potential of biotechnology, and a hope that the acceptance of
biotechnology could be increased through educating the public, this group
met in Barcelona, Spain on April 6-7. Here they shared data, determined
how to proceed and developed a timeline for completion of their final
report. Project coordinator, Professor Vivian Moses, of King's College
London, had visited all twelve of the original participating EU countries
as well as Switzerland where he discussed the work and helped collect
data. Moses, jointly with the national partners, interviewed local
educators, representatives of government ministries and agencies, the
media and other relevant sources of information. Subjects included
government activities and funding, formal education (schools,
universities, colleges), media activity, web sites, book availability,
industry participation and resources, and the views and activities of
special interest groups including those opposed to biotech. Progress
reports were made by country, with questions and discussion around each.
The Eurobarometer was a reference point for many of the participants.
Eurobarometer 52.1, which is available at
http://europa.eu.int/comm/research/pdf/eurobarometer-en.pdf, is a 94-page
report based on a public opinion poll that was published in March 2000.
This particular report attempts to gauge European attitudes to
biotechnology, including: their expectations from this field, their
knowledge of genetics and the sources of information that they trust.
Polling is conducted by country to identify regional distinctions. This is
the fourth in a series of polls along similar lines, so in many instances
readers can get a sense of how opinions have changed over time. One can
see for example that in general Europeans score about 10% lower in 1999
compared to 1996 in terms of their view of whether different types of
biotechnology applications are useful. Their overall assessment of whether
the applications were risky remained about the same, but their opinion
about the moral acceptability dropped by 11 to 15% depending on the
technology. Willingness to support biotech applications also dropped
considerably between 1996 and 1999 - by between 12 and 16 points. The lack
of understanding of the science behind biotech was dramatic. About 50% of
Greeks, and 40% of Germans and French surveyed believed that there were no
genes in ordinary (non genetically modified) tomatoes. In four countries
(Portugal, Spain, Ireland and the United Kingdom), more than 50% of those
surveyed did not know whether it was possible to transfer animal genes to
Some workshop participants indicated that they felt an almost complete
lack of trust of the media to provide balanced reporting, whereas others
indicated that this situation was improving and though the headlines still
may be sensational, the content of the articles was fairly accurate.
Several participants reported that they were providing support to
scientists to make it easier for them to speak to groups about the
potential of biotechnology. This included sharing slides for presentations
and offering training in media relations. The teachers in the group were
eager to accept the new materials that I had to share with them - just
like most other teachers that I have worked with in Canada over the years!
In general, it was soon apparent that whether we are based in Europe or
North America, we experience similar challenges relating to communicating
biotechnology to the public. These challenges include regional differences
in attitude, varied levels o