Biotech reporting mimics Hollywood rumor mill

By Steven J. Milloy
A version of this op-ed appears in
Investor's Business Daily, October 8, 1999

A few years ago, the mainstream press started reporting what the gossip sheets were saying about celebrities. The "real" press would never stoop to reporting such unsubstantiated allegations themselves, but it became OK to report on what the scandal rags were saying.

The same thing is going on with the reporting of biotechnology, a serious scientific topic that deserves serious explanatory journalism. Instead of digging out the facts, the mainstream press is reporting that Europeans are in a panic because of the British tabloids' propensity to stir the pot. Then they cite the same handful of claims, factoids and scientific snippets that appear in the British press. These little myths take on epic status when reporters are unwilling to provide background. Just this week Time, Newsweek and The New York Times recited the litany, following on the heels of Consumer Reports' biased report a week earlier. U.S. News & World Report scooped everyone a few weeks earlier by being the first to click off the unchallenged activist line.

Here are the key ingredients for a biotech story written the way today's reporters do it. I've added some balancing information you probably haven't heard.

Unlike the biotechnology industry, which tests genes before inserting them into new products, today's reporters feel no obligation to test activists' factoids before inserting them into their news stories.

Steven J. Milloy is an author, lecturer and adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. He is publisher of the Junk Science Home Page, judged one of the "best 50 web sites of 1998" by Popular Science magazine.

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