Half-true is False

A network evening newscast ran this headline:

“A new study suggests genetically altered food can be bad for your health.”

Shortly, the anchor said, “Still ahead…we’ll tell you about the study that raises new questions about the safety of genetically altered food.” And soon he intro’d the package:

“A controversial new study out today in the medical journal Lancet is renewing questions about the safety of genetically altered foods. This study suggests these foods may pose a health risk, but others are raising questions about possible flaws in the research. [The correspondent] has been searching for the unaltered facts.”

The correspondent: “According to the study, lab rats fed genetically engineered potatoes developed thickening of their intestines. It’s one of the only studies ever published in a prestigious medical journal suggesting that genetically altered foods can cause physical problems. It’s vindication at last for those who have long condemned the proliferation of genetically engineered foods as dangerous and unnatural.”

Next, in a soundbite, the director of the Center for Food Safety said the study “suggests that genetic engineering of food can take a safe food and make it toxic.” (The Center tells the public about what it calls “the hazards of industrial agriculture.”)

Then the correspondent changed course: “Many scientists believe this new research does nothing to further” the debate. “In fact, it only clouds the issue with faulty research.” Huh? Faulty? After the anchor scares us away from Frankenfoods, as critics call it, and after the correspondent tells us the new study vindicates the critics, she tells us the research was faulty!

That was followed by two more soundbites: a scientist from the Biotechnology Industry Organization says on camera the study deserves an “F,” then a spokesman for the Royal Society of Scientists rejects the study as “bad science.”

The correspondent wrapped it up: “Genetically altered foods are not required to be labeled in this country, so perhaps it’s no wonder that one small, flawed study saying they harm rats has struck such a nerve, suggesting we’re uncomfortable with how little we know about how technology is changing our food supply.” One small, flawed study! And that overdue disclosure is submerged in a 47-word swamp.

Why were we told that it’s one small, flawed study only at the end? Why didn’t they tell us upfront? Sure, we can’t expect anyone to broadcast the headline “Genetically altered foods challenged by one small, flawed study.” But that’s what the story adds up to. If you write an honest headline that knocks down a story, you don’t have much of a story. Certainly not for the front page. And a story carried on network news is equivalent to placement on a national front page.

More than 12 hours before the newscast, the New York Times had carried a long article about the study on page 29. The head: “A Disputed Study Suggests Possible Harm From Genetically Altered Food.” The first sentence:

“A prestigious medical journal is publishing a study suggesting that genetically modified food may be harmful, even though the research has been widely criticized by scientists and was found wanting by some of the journal’s own referees.”

Now let’s take a second look at that newscast’s headline: “A new study suggests genetically altered food can be bad for your health.” True–but only half-true. The other half is, it’s only one small, flawed study. Once again, what’s half-true is untrue.

While we’re at it, let’s take another look at the first tease: “…we’ll tell you about the study that raises new questions about the safety of genetically altered food.” Raises new questions? There’s no hint that the correspondent eventually discloses it’s only “one small, flawed study.”

Exhibit C: the anchor’s lead-in to the correspondent also talks about the study’s raising questions but mentions its possible flaws. And the anchor says the correspondent had searched for “the unaltered facts.” To do what, bury them? And what might altered facts be? Non-facts?

In the correspondent’s third sentence, she says that for critics of genetically engineered food, the study provided vindication—her word. Vindication at last. How can one small, flawed study vindicate any critic?

Whoever wrote that headline and tease, whoever edited it, whoever read it, should have known the facts and known that their presentation was one big, deeply flawed contrivance. If sound judgment had intervened, that story would not have been used at all. Or else it would have been told soberly and downplayed.

Another entry in the deception derby:

“There is word tonight that the Pizza Hut restaurant chain has settled a racial discrimination suit filed by a black family….”

There is word tonight suggests the anchor of the network evening newscast has late word, perhaps word that reached the newsroom only minutes ago, maybe even an hour ago or so. In fact, The Associated Press had moved the story seven hours earlier, at 10:46 a.m., ET. The AP’s first paragraph: “Pizza Hut Inc. will pay at least $160,000 and provide racial sensitivity training to tens of thousands of employees nationwide as part of the settlement of a racial discrimination lawsuit, the Chicago Tribune reported today.” As the AP acknowledged, it had picked up the story from the Trib, a morning paper. When the paper’s subscribers picked up the paper from their doorstep at dawn, they found the story of the settlement–12 hours or so before the anchor said, “There is word tonight.”

A better broadcast lead: “The Pizza Hut restaurant chain has settled….” That way, the focus would be on the subject of the story, Pizza Hut, not on There is word tonight. That’s razzmatazz, a devious effort to make news that’s more than 12 hours old seem fresh out of the oven.

Two other gimmicks intended to ginger up newscasts are exclusive and breaking news. Both seem to be becoming more popular, even when many stories bearing those labels are neither breaking nor exclusive. As for breaking news, often when that label is used, the news is not breaking; it’s already broken, perhaps hours earlier.

So there is word tonight–and all day every day: Trash trickery. Try truth.

RTNDA Communicator published this column in October 2000.