But wouldn’t it be even worse to spend 10 hours being brainwashed about soybean biotechnology? If we learned one thing from Biotech University, the answer is a resounding YES!
Biotech University is a 10-hour long biotechnology conference sponsored by the Missouri School of Journalism and the National Center for Soybean Biotechnology, an advocacy group that promotes the use of biotechnology in growing soybeans. Over the course of two days, attendees spend 10 hours learning about biotechnology through a series of seminars and speakers. Nine of those hours are about how great biotechnology is, and one (!) hour discusses in vague terms how “some” might not like biotechnology.
Biotechnology is a field of research that studies the use of living organisms or other biological systems in the manufacture of products for environmental/agricultural management. But Biotech University says nothing about that in its promotional literature or on its website.
Before they changed the website, it used to say what you could win if you attend this brainwashing biotech conference in huge letters: “WIN A TRIP OVERSEAS! REPORTING CONTEST.” And the website talked quite a bit about last year’s winner, Charlotte Bellis, who went to China for a biotechnology conference. Coooooooollll!!!
(Disclosure: your humble Editor-in-Chief and Social Media Editor attended this 10-hour conference last year, along with about a dozen others. However, neither of us entered the reporting contest because we were convinced from the beginning it was a scam.)
But here’s what Biotech University doesn’t tell you about Charlotte’s prize-winning entry: It was an extremely biotech-friendly piece designed to make soybean biotechnology look really good. This is the video she submitted for the reporting contest, which constituted the bulk of her multimedia entry. Watch:
It’s four minutes of her promoting soybean biotechnology.
You wouldn’t know it from this piece of advertising broadcast journalism, but biotechnology is a controversial area of research. That’s because private companies such as Monsanto change the genetics of plant seeds just enough so they can patent life. And some of the results have been horrifying for the environment and farmers.
Charlotte’s video report briefly mentioned the controversy about biotechnology by saying, “For some, it’s questionable.” She interviewed a consumer at the Columbia Farmer’s Market who vaguely said organic “is better for everyone.” Charlotte then talked to an old organic farmer who talked about being the youngest person in his family to still be working the farm. That was it.
She relied on the testimony of two non-experts who said vague and unremarkable things about organic food for 30 seconds to add “balance” to this story. But let’s pay attention to the sources she used for the piece to support her thesis that soybean biotechnology is good.
The first was a man named Kelly Forck, who was identified in the video report only as a soybean farmer. She left out the fact that not only was Forck the former president of the Missouri Soybean Association, but he was also one of the speakers at Biotech University. She was no intrepid reporter who went to find how the average farmer is impacted by biotechnology; she spoke to a de facto biotechnology spokesman.
Charlotte also interviewed a soybean biotechnology researcher, Dr. Henry Nguyen. He’s an expert, yes, but he was also a speaker at Biotech University. Conflict of interest much?
We wanted to know what Charlotte thought about all this, so we gave her a call. That’s not an easy feat because she is now a TV reporter in New Zealand. We were hoping she would make it easy on us and admit to making a very biotech-friendly piece to help win the contest. That didn’t happen. She said she doesn’t really have an opinion about biotechnology, but that her story was a “neutral” take on the subject.
Charlotte admitted that the National Center for Soybean Biotechnology certainly had a motive in sponsoring the conference and reporting contest, and it did nothing to hide its opinion, but that didn’t skew her reporting to be more biotech-friendly. She said that unlike some green-eared journalists, she used the conference as a jumping-off point in her reporting, not as a substitute for going out there to get both sides. That’s an interesting point for her to make, considering that we can trace her two most important sources and much of the information she used directly to Biotech University.
In our conversation, Charlotte also noted that the story was judged in the reporting contest by three real journalists: Terry Ganey, former projects editor at the Columbia Tribune; Serena Carpenter, assistant professor of journalism at Arizona State University; and Tom Steever of the Brownfield Network.
She’s right! Three independent journalists looked this thing over and decided it was a good piece of journalism. We spoke to several people who were at Biotech University last year. Only a dozen people attended and were eligible for the reporting contest. None of the people we spoke to submitted entries to the contest, so Charlotte could have won mostly due to a lack of competition. At least two other attendees submitted entries, though, as they came in second and third places. But if that’s the case, should we really be announcing the winner of an illegitimate reporting contest on the Missouri School of Journalism’s site?
We got in touch with Serena Carpenter, the assistant journalism professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and one of the reporting contest’s judges. By email, she told us, “Some (not all) of the applicants did sound like they were promoting biotechnology. However, it is to be expected that immersion in such a program will likely influence their articles and video pieces. Inexperienced communicators need to learn to be critical and verify information.”
She did defend the conference, saying, “I applaud this organization for working to ensure that accurate information is shared with the public. This experience is a great opportunity for students.”
Broadcast senior Theo Keith also attended Biotech University, and his reaction represents the majority opinion I heard from other Biotech University attendees. In a blog post after the event, he wrote, “”What I can’t say is that I got both sides of the story. While I expected a one-sided presentation from a soybean board firmly behind biotech, my fellow reporters and I felt disgusted by the whole thing. Personally, I support new innovations that improve society. I don’t support having a view crammed into my head without questioning. The event was too structured, making it painfully clear how one-sided it was.”
Both Forck and Nguyen were speakers at this year’s Biotech University as well, held on Oct. 15-16. We wonder if the winner of this year’s reporting contest was as dependent on biotechnology-friendly sources as Charlotte was. The winners from this year’s Biotech University were just announced, so we’ll take a look at their entries and publish a follow-up.
If you were at Biotech University this year and have some thoughts about it, shoot us an email at Tips@JSchoolBuzz.com.