The spring newsletter of the National Association of Science Writers leads with a reprint of a blog post by Hillary Rosner entitled “Their so-called journalism, or what I saw at the women’s mags.” Rosner is an experienced writer and editor who specializes in environmental science. Her website lists articles she’s written for the New York Times, Audubon, Popular Science, and other publications. She also contributed to Al Gore’s 2006 book about climate change, An Inconvenient Truth.
Rosner’s bibliogaphy doesn’t include articles for Vogue, Elle, Self, Cosmopolitan, or any other women’s magazines. Her blog post suggests why. A profile she pitched about Lone Drøscher Nielsen, a conservationist who runs an orangutan sanctuary in Borneo, was rejected by “a lovely editor at a high-profile women’s magazine that from time to time runs articles about strong women doing worthwhile work.” The problem: The orangutans’ rainforest habitat is being wiped out to make way for oil palms, whose fruit yields a thick, greasy oil used in cosmetics—cosmetics made by half the high-profile magazine’s advertisers.
That a magazine editor would avoid upsetting advertisers is regrettable but understandable. Most magazines and newspapers are in business to make money. Does your local newspaper review real estate agents or used car dealers? Mine, the Washington Post, doesn’t—perhaps because its classified section is full of ads for houses and used cars.
Rosner’s complaint about the treatment of science in women’s magazines goes far beyond a rejected pitch. One editor asked her to alter scientists’ quotes in a story. Another changed a breast cancer survivor’s account of how she discovered a lump on her breast. The most egregious offense against journalistic ethics that Rosner experienced was the recasting of a story to suit an editor’s preconceived thesis of the topic, a thesis contradicted by Rosner’s reporting.
As a freelance in today’s weak economy, Rosner told her readers that she’s not in a position to reject assignments. “But,” she wrote, “as I started thinking back on some of my horror tales . . . I realized I no longer give a shit. I feel like this stuff needs to air out.”
I admire Rosner’s stand—which is why I’m writing about it. But as a skeptical scientist and journalist, I wanted to see for myself whether science coverage in women’s magazines is as dire as Rosner led me to believe. So I bought the May issue of American Vogue.
Flipping through the issue, I encountered science first on page 88, in the form of letter to the editor. The writer, a pharmacology student from San Francisco called Alda Karic, evidently appreciated an article from Vogue‘s February issue on the abuse of over-the-counter drugs. Her letter urged her fellow readers to consult pharmacists when they have questions about OTC drugs.
Science appeared next on page 216. Florence Kane, a former Vogue fashion reporter, wrote about the diagnosis she received, while pregnant, of Crohn’s disease. The story was personal, affecting, and, as far as I could tell, medically accurate. So far so good on the science front—at least in this one issue of Vogue. I was also pleased to see that Vogue shuns horoscopes.
But on page 286, I came across the kind of story that had appalled Rosner. In “Lab to table,” Newsweek reporter Eve Conant examined whether genetically modified foods are safe to eat. (Whether GM foods are safe to cultivate is different question.) The story was alarmist, unbalanced, and too light on the underlying science.
For one thing, the story lacked a meaningful discussion of why GM foods might be presumed to be harmful. Genetic modification either alters sequences already in an organism’s DNA or inserts new sequences. The end result is a modified protein or a new protein. In general, the proteins we eat are broken down in the stomach and duodenum first into peptides and then into amino acids. At that point, whatever form and function the protein had, GM or otherwise, is lost.
Granted, the neurotoxins produced by the botulism bacterium, the death cap mushroom, the black mamba snake, and other poisonous organisms are either proteins or peptides. Still, no one—except perhaps a villain like James Bond’s antagonist Ernst Stavro Blofeld—would genetically modify, say, the DNA of a Granny Smith apple to insert the sequence of a neurotoxin that’s deadly to humans.
In her Vogue story Conant briefly mentions studies that involved feeding GM peas to mice and GM soy to hamsters. The mice became more prone to allergies and the hamsters were sterile by the third generation. But she included so little information that I couldn’t track down the studies or identify who performed them.
Conant did not mention a 2004 report by the National Academy of Sciences, which found that “to date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population.” Indeed, Conant gave unwitting support to the NAS finding by pointing out that she and millions of other Americans have been consuming GM food, mostly without their knowledge, for years. If eating GM food had ever sickened her or her family, friends, and colleagues, she didn’t say.
I agree with Conant that consumers ought to know what they’re eating. And, as the NAS report recommends, we should be vigilant about adverse health effects. It is not unreasonable to expect that a GM food could provoke a severe allergic reaction, for example. But it would be a tragedy if humans eschewed GM foods out of ignorance or out of fear because they’ve been scared by articles like Conant’s. As the world’s population grows and its climate warms, GM foods could well be the only way to ensure that everyone has enough to eat.