NOTE: I find it of special interest in the below article the role the Science Media Centre (SMC) has played in spinning science on behalf of its corporate funders. I have written on this previously. See my history of the SMC model of so-called science communication here.
Ever since they classified the world’s most widely used herbicide as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” a team of international scientists at the World Health Organization’s (WHO) cancer research group have been under withering attack by the agrichemical industry and its surrogates.
In a front-page series, The Monsanto Papers, the French newspaper Le Monde described the attacks as “the pesticide giant’s war on science,” and reported, “to save glyphosate, the firm [Monsanto] undertook to harm the United Nations agency against cancer by all means.”
One key weapon in industry’s arsenal has been the reporting of Kate Kelland, a veteran Reuters reporter based in London.
With two industry-fed scoops and a special report, reinforced by her regular beat reporting, Kelland has aimed a torrent of critical reporting at the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), portraying the group and its scientists as out of touch and unethical, and leveling accusations about conflicts of interest and suppressed information in their decision-making.
The IARC working group of scientists did not conduct new research, but reviewed years of published and peer-reviewed research before concluding that there was limited evidence of cancer in humans from real-world exposures to glyphosate and “sufficient” evidence of cancer in studies on animals. IARC also concluded there was strong evidence of genotoxicity for glyphosate alone, as well as glyphosate used in formulations such as Monsanto’s Roundup brand of herbicide, whose use has increased dramatically as Monsanto has marketed crop strains genetically modified to be “Roundup Ready.”
But in writing about the IARC decision, Kelland has ignored much of the published research backing the classification, and focused on industry talking points and criticisms of the scientists in seeking to diminish their analysis. Her reporting has relied heavily on pro-industry sources, while failing to disclose their industry connections; contained errors that Reuters has refused to correct; and presented cherry-picked information out of context from documents she did not provide to her readers.
Raising further questions about her objectivity as a science reporter are Kelland’s ties to the Science Media Centre (SMC), a controversial nonprofit PR agency in the UK that connects scientists with reporters, and gets its largest block of funding from industry groups and companies, including chemical industry interests.
SMC, which has been called “science’s PR agency,” launched in 2002 partly as an effort to tamp down news stories driven by groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, according to its founding report. SMC has been accused of playing down the environmental and human health risks of some controversial products and technologies, according to multiple researchers who have studied the group.
Kelland’s bias in favor of the group is evident, as she appears in the SMC promotional video and the SMC promotional report, regularly attends SMC briefings, speaks at SMC workshops and attended meetings in India to discuss setting up an SMC office there.
Neither Kelland nor her editors at Reuters would respond to questions about her relationship with SMC, or to specific criticisms about her reporting.
Fiona Fox, director of SMC, said her group did not work with Kelland on her IARC stories or provide sources beyond those included in SMC’s press releases. It is clear, however, that Kelland’s reporting on glyphosate and IARC mirrors the views put forth by SMC experts and industry groups on those topics.
Reuters Takes on Cancer Scientist
On June 14, Reuters published a special report by Kelland accusing Aaron Blair, an epidemiologist from the U.S. National Cancer Institute and chair of the IARC panel on glyphosate, of withholding important data from its cancer assessment.
Kelland’s story went so far as to suggest that the information supposedly withheld could have changed IARC’s conclusion that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic. Yet the data in question was but a small subset of epidemiology data gathered through a long-term project known as the Agricultural Health Study (AHS). An analysis of several years of data about glyphosate from the AHS had already been published and was considered by IARC, but a newer analysis of unfinished, unpublished data was not considered, because IARC rules call for relying only on published data.
Kelland’s thesis that Blair withheld crucial data was at odds with the source documents on which she based her story, but she did not provide readers with links to any of those documents, so readers could not check the veracity of the claims for themselves. Her bombshell allegations were then widely circulated, repeated by reporters at other news outlets (including Mother Jones) and immediately deployed as a lobbying tool by the agrichemical industry.
After obtaining the actual source documents, Carey Gillam, a former Reuters reporter and now research director of U.S Right to Know (the nonprofit group where I also work), laid out multiple errors and omissions in Kelland’s piece.
The analysis provides examples of key claims in Kelland’s article, including a statement supposedly made by Blair, that are not supported by the 300-page deposition of Blair conducted by Monsanto’s attorneys, or by other source documents.
Kelland’s selective presentation of the Blair deposition also ignored what contradicted her thesis—for example, Blair’s many affirmations of research showing glyphosate’s connections to cancer, as Gillam wrote in a Huffington Post article.
Kelland inaccurately described Blair’s deposition and related materials as “court documents,” implying they were publicly available; in fact, they were not filed in court, and presumably were obtained from Monsanto’s attorneys or surrogates. (The documents were available only to attorneys involved in the case, and plaintiff’s attorneys have said they did not provide them to Kelland.)
Reuters has refused to correct the errors in the piece, including the false claim about the origin of the source documents and an inaccurate description of a key source, statistician Bob Tarone, as “independent of Monsanto.” In fact, Tarone had received a consultancy payment from Monsanto for his efforts to discredit IARC.
In response to a USRTK request to correct or retract the Kelland article, Reutersglobal enterprises editor Mike Williams wrote in a June 23 email:
We have reviewed the article and the reporting on which it was based. That reporting included the deposition to which you refer, but was not confined to it. The reporter, Kate Kelland, was also in contact with all the people mentioned in the story and many others, and studied other documents. In the light of that review, we do not consider the article to be inaccurate or to warrant retraction.
Williams declined to address the false citing of “court documents” or the inaccurate description of Tarone as an independent source.
Since then, the lobbying tool Reuters handed to Monsanto has grown legs and run wild. A June 24 editorial by the St. Louis Post Dispatch added errors on top of the already misleading reporting. By mid-July, right-wing blogs were using the Reuters story to accuse IARC of defrauding U.S. taxpayers, pro-industry news sites were predicting the story would be “the final nail in the coffin” of cancer claims about glyphosate, and a fake science news group was promoting Kelland’s story on Facebook with a phony headline claiming that IARC scientists had confessed to a cover-up.
Scientific experts do not always disclose their conflicts of interest in news releases issued by SMC, nor in their high-profile roles as decision-makers about the cancer risk of chemicals like glyphosate.
Frequent SMC expert Alan Boobis, professor of biochemical pharmacology at Imperial College London, offers views in SMC releases on aspartame (“not a concern”), glyphosate in urine (no concern), insecticides and birth defects (“premature to draw conclusions”), alcohol, GMO corn, trace metals, lab rodent diets and more.
The ECHA decision that glyphosate is not a carcinogen “is to be congratulated,” according to Boobis, and the IARC decision that it is probably carcinogenic “is not a cause for undue alarm,” because it did not take into account how pesticides are used in the real world.
Boobis declared no conflicts of interest in the IARC release or any of the earlier SMC releases that carry his quotes. But he then sparked a conflict-of-interest scandal when news broke that he held leadership positions with the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a pro-industry group, at the same time he co-chaired a UN panel that found glyphosate unlikely to pose a cancer riskthrough diet. (Boobis is currently chair of the ILSI Board of Trustees, and vice president ad interim of ILSI/Europe).
ILSI has received six-figure donations from Monsanto and CropLife International, the pesticide trade association. Professor Angelo Moretto, who co-chaired the UN panel on glyphosate along with Boobis, also held a leadership role in ILSI. Yet the panel declared no conflicts of interest…. SNIP
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