African media urged to consider ‘national interest’ in reporting on GMOs

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

July 19, 2019

Journalists and scientists are urging African media to consider the “national interest” when reporting on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to help guide the continent’s debate on the technology.

Affail Monney, president of the Ghana Journalists Association (GJA), said it is not enough for the media to be conveyer belts of anti- and pro-GMO information.

“Ours is to take a middle ground and sieve the issues through our journalistic lenses and present the issues as they are, having listened to both sides… So that is where our journalistic expertise should come in,” he told the Alliance for Science after a panel discussion in Accra on media coverage of GMOs.  “It’s not enough to parrot what both sides will tell us for and against… We need to listen to both sides. And then, we have editorial pieces and opinion pieces… We take a position guided purely by the national interest.”

His comments followed concerns voiced by some scientists that the media have often times allowed fearmongering and misinformation on the technology to go unchallenged, creating doubts about GMOs in the minds of citizens.

“I am worried,” said Dr. Richard Ampadu Ameyaw of the Science and Technology Policy Research Institute. “If you look at the media work, they are supposed to provide (accurate) information. Not information that will mislead others. They are supposed to give sound information to the people. So the first thing is that I expect the media persons to be convinced that this information I am putting out there is the true information. But it looks like the media itself is not sure of what they are reporting. So if you find yourself in that space, then you always mislead people.”

Field trials that could lead to commercialization of GMO crops are at advanced stages in more than 12 countries on the African continent. In Ghana, scientists have indicated they have completed work on the country’s first GMO crop and will apply soon to regulators for commercial release.

The GJA president said issues of science and technology are complicated, but it remains the responsibility of the media to properly understand them and communicate them appropriately to the public. “We (the media) should understand the issues and humanize the issues… The capacity of journalists is fundamental. So the first step will be to whip the interest of journalists. So they can digest and consume such issues and shape their minds for the better on such issues,” he said.

“We should ask: what are the implications? The pros and cons: what are the benefits and the negative effects of GMOs? But if we allow people to dominate the discussions, sometimes, the discussions will not be in the interest of this nation. And our media specialists in this area should play a frontal role in shaping public opinion and getting the government to tow a line that will be in the supreme national interest,” Monney added.

He noted there is a relationship between the development of any country and the emphasis the media puts on issues of science and technology. “There is a direct correlation between the seriousness with which we take such issues and national development. So if we desire to develop in all dimensions, then there is the need for journalists to deepen their interest in science and that should reflect in more stories on such issues,” Monney said.

Ameyaw, who is also the Ghana coordinator of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB), wants the media to prioritize the views of real experts on issues of GMOs and not allow people who don’t fully understand the technology to lead discussions. “I have come to believe that if I am sick or break my leg, I don’t go to a carpenter. You go to a person who is able to mend it. And so if there is a challenge with a science issue, you go to the scientist… The reality is that we have scientists who are interested in the technology,” he noted.

Communications consultant Mary Ama Kodum-Agyemang is also worried that the spread of untruths about GMOs is hampering a proper debate on the technology. “The antis have successfully put fear in people on GMOs. And fear is a strong thing. So people are opposing because of fear… And it’s an unhealthy fear… But as a nation, there is an agenda for development. And part of it has to do with science,” she said.

She called on the media to work toward producing more investigative pieces on GMOs so the public can be better informed. “Most of the negative things being said are being said out of unnecessary fear. And you don’t do that. It’s a science… I want to see majority of those reporting on biotech issues to do it from an investigative point of view,” the former broadcaster and writer told Alliance for Science.