A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Friday, October 10, 2003

Super language

Let's lay off the poor old Guardian for a little, and focus instead on The Independent, (I), for a change. In doing so, I will contrast it with The Times, (T), on the same subject, namely today's report on the excellent research carried out at the University of Reading on hybridisation from oilseed rape - the perfect opportunity for anti-GM ecohype in the wrong hands. The original research was published in Science.

First the headlines: (T): "GM rape 'bound to form wild hybrids'"; (I): "Study reveals first evidence that GM superweeds exist". Note the subtle difference: The Times headline is factually correct and employs a neutral scientific term, wild hybrids; by contrast, The Independent employs the heavily-loaded term, superweeds, which immediately emotes the Frankenfood's concept;

Secondly, where The Times does use the emotive word in the text (and only once, by the way), it is carefully printed as "superweeds". Again, by contrast, in The Independent, the word is employed without the " " (known as "scare quotes", by the way) and no fewer than four times. Moreover, on two occasions, it is linked with the word 'threat' - 'superweed threat'. Aliens all round, folks;

Thirdly, The Times quotes the leader of the research team, Dr. Mike Watkinson, as saying, "These hybrids , however, would not necessarily be damaging "superweeds" with advantageous traits." Thus, on the only occasion on which the word, "superweeds", is given in The Times, it is in the context of the hybrids not necessarily being a threat at all. No such caveat is entered in The Independent report.

Fourthly, it is worth mentioning that the research was on conventional plants, not GM plants: The Independent headline is thus completely misleading. The research only indicates a potential from GM crops, a point The Times was careful to stress.

I could go on, but I hope this little deconstruction demonstrates the subtle differences between careful science reporting and emotive science reporting, even when, in this case, The Independent report is far from being the worst of its kind. Indeed, the evidence for "superweeds", as distinct from wild hybrids, is remarkably limited. In some research, the hybrids have proved weak, and they have even been outcompeted by the non-GM crops and non-GM hybrids. And just think about it - the plants only have an advantage with respect to one specific weedkiller.

This is precisely why in my blog, The British Press Gang, below, The Times has a rating of ***(*) and The Independent only ** (and I have deliberately chosen one of the better efforts of the latter - wait until I do a real shocker).

I hope to be doing many more such little deconstructions during the coming weeks. Remember, the semiotics are everything. Sign of the times! Lunch. Philip.

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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