Daily Mail Science Reporting – Deconstructed

by Andrew Maynard on January 8, 2010

Hype, scare mongering, obfuscation and just plain misinformation – the scientific community are reasonably clear about what they think of Tabloid science reporting much of the time.  So I wasn’t too surprised to see the headline “‘Grey goo’ food laced with nanoparticles could swamp Britain” in today’s Daily Mail, following the release of a new report on nanotechnologies and food from the UK House of Lords.  Here we go again I thought – cheap misrepresentation to pull the punters in and never mind the fallout.  But on closer reading, perhaps this piece isn’t as crass and misleading as I initially thought…

Partly as a bit of fun, I thought I would deconstruct the piece, to try and work out whether there is some sense here behind the apparent madness.  But I also have a bit of a soft spot for its author, Fiona Macrae.  Fiona was largely responsible for educating me in the ways of Tabloid reporting a few years ago.  It was the launch of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies Consumer Products Inventory, and I was talking with a group of reporters at the UK Science Media Center.  I remember Fiona clearly – she was smart, engaged, asked intelligent questions.  I was effusive in my answers.  And shocked when I saw her story the next day.

Rather than telling my story, she told hers.  Under the banner “‘Hidden danger’ in anti-ageing cream” she appeared to take my carefully considered words and turn them on their head.  Of course, it didn’t help that, in the course of our amiable interview, I had told her “We are using humans as guinea pigs with a lot of this.”  The lesson: she was a skilled reporter, and I was naive!

Having been on the sharp end of her pen, I was interested to read today’s story with a slightly more dispassionate eye.  Here’s what I thought, section by section:

The headline: ‘Grey goo’ food laced with nanoparticles could swamp Britain

What an emotive headline – a new danger, infiltrating our food, and threatening to overcome us!  From a purely literary perspective, the imagery is wonderful – “‘grey goo food’” brings back recollections of old-style British cuisine, while “laced” and “swamp” are loaded with menace.  But is it inaccurate?  Placing grey goo in inverted commas tells us that this is shorthand for something, and not to be taken too literally.  According to the report the piece is based on, food could hit the shelves that contains nanoparticles (and is probably already there) – “laced” is descriptive, but not inaccurate.  Saying Britain could be swamped with these foods is a bit of an exaggeration – but it is possible that in the future significant numbers of food products could use nanomaterials in some way.  So while the headline is attention-grabbing, it avoids being plain wrong.

Britain is on the brink of a massive expansion in foods containing controversial ‘grey goo’ nanoparticles, according to the former head of the Food Standards Agency.

Low-calorie chocolate and beer that doesn’t go flat could be on sale within just five years, Lord Krebs said last night.

Is Britain on the brink of a massive expansion of foods containing nanomaterials – aka “‘grey goo’ nanoparticles”?  Not unless industry and government do something to ensure the safe and successful development of the technology, according to the House of Lords report.  But the statement isn’t too far from the truth.  And the chocolate and beer examples are accurate.

However, he and other peers believe there will be no requirement for the hi-tech products to be labelled as containing nanoparticles – microscopic compounds that can worm their way into the brain, liver and kidneys with unknown consequences.

Here we see the real skill of the Tabloid writer – technically correct writing with worrying embedded subliminal messages.  Sure the Lords writing the report didn’t believe labeling is the way to go – although they did come up with another solution to ensure people had access to relevant information.  And some nanoparticles can get to the brain and kidneys, with unknown consequences.  But by saying they ‘worm their way in’ Macrae conjures up images of slimy parasites and worse – would you want anything “worming” its way into your body?

But critics said the public have the right to know what they are putting into their bodies, and point out that new legislation will mean that cosmetics that contain nanoparticles will have to be clearly labelled.

Correct.  And the full report addressed this.

Once derided by Prince Charles as ‘grey goo’, nanoparticles are tiny particles – 300 million would fit in a pinhead – with powerful properties that make them of interest to food companies.

Although they are small, they have a large surface area at which key chemical reactions can take place. This means that relatively low numbers of sugar nanoparticles can have the same effect as a large amount of normal sugar, creating tasty chocolate or cakes with a fraction of the calories.

The same principle could be applied to fat, allowing the creation of low-fat icecreams and mayonnaise that taste like the real thing.

Nanotechnology-inspired packaging promises to improve food shelf-life, and in the U.S. plastic beer bottles have been lined with ‘nanoclay’ to stop the brew from going flat.

This is all good and useful information.  Having grabbed the Tabloid reader’s attention, Macrae is now feeding them some useful information.

Lord Krebs chaired an inquiry by the House of Lords science and technology committee into the safety of nanotechnology in food, which found that although there is no evidence that the tiny particles are harmful, there are ‘large gaps’ on our knowledge.

The committee called for the Food Standards-Agency to compile a database of nanoproducts that can be accessed by the public. The FSA is not in favour of nanoparticles being declared on food labels, saying they are cluttered enough already.

This is accurate reporting – still on a roll here.

The inquiry also criticised the food industry for being unnecessarily ‘ secretive’ about the products it has in the pipeline. It said this seemed mainly to be because it was concerned about the public’s reaction.

Julian Hunt of the Food and Drink Federation said: ‘Given that nanotechnology is in its infancy in the food and drink sector, and that bringing innovations to market is a long and complex process, we are surprised that the report seems to criticize the food industry for an apparent reluctance to communicate extensively on this subject.

‘There are many questions and unknowns about the potential future uses of nanotechnologies in our sector, and there is much work still to be done by scientists, governments and regulators, as well as the food and drink industry.’

And we finish with the report’s critique of the food industry – which was the main thrust of the associated press release – and a response from an industry representative.

And at the end of the piece, I have to say that it is largely accurate and informative – emotive maybe, but not seriously misleading.  I would actually go further and say that, once the in-your-face headline and opening sentences have pulled readers in, they might actually learn something!

Of course, the fear is that readers will miss the nuances and not read past the headline and, as a result, get completely the wrong end of the stick.  I wonder how likely this is in this case though. Do people really believe in “grey goo” or is the joke on over-sensitive scientists here?

There are obviously major issues surrounding science reporting in the Tabloids, and I don’t for one minute want to give the impression that I am supporting dangerously misleading and disingenuous reporting.  But in this instance, there’s little of substance to complain about once you get beyond the occasionally jarring language.  And it might actually lead to some readers having a better grasp of what nanotech has to do with food… possibly!

Go Fiona!

1 Hilary Sutcliffe January 8, 2010 at 10:35 am

Trust you to spoil my anti-Daily Mail fun! You are quite right though, I fell for the headline too easily.

However, I wonder if it is actually the emotional hysteria of the headline that will stick in people’s minds more than the copy below. Interesting to see what follows if anything. The comments below give us a taster of what to expect, but again, most have perfectly valid points, if a little OTT.

Also in Fiona’s defence it’s usually the subs who create the headlines and ‘spice things up’ a bit. So it looks like she may have written a balanced piece as you say which was tarted up to suit the Daily Mail USP.

2 Andrew Maynard January 8, 2010 at 10:50 am

Thanks for pointing out that the reporter usually has no say in the headlines – should have mentioned that!

The “emotional hysteria” is a significant issue, and I was partly poking readers to see whether anyone would come back at me on this. Would love to know how people think headlines – and the emotive responses they elicit – alter perceptions and attitudes (and whether there is hard research here, or just anecdotes).

3 Aarti Kapoor January 13, 2010 at 5:38 pm

Seriously, if it wasn’t for the headline, I may not have been drawn to the article in the first place! Tabloids are notorious for their exaggeration and over-the-top sensationalizing of stories, so it comes as no surprise that the carefully-crafted headline “’Grey goo’ food laced with nanoparticles could swamp Britain” will evoke some degree of “emotional hysteria” in the reader. The words “laced” and “swamp”, with all their negative connotations, set the tone for the rest of the article, and being a non-science, lay person, when I read that nanoparticles could “worm their way into the brain, liver and kidneys with unknown consequences”, I was curious to know what other devastating effects these nanoparticles can have in a human. But at the end of the day, one must remember that a tabloid is read mainly for its entertainment value, rather than educational value. Even if there is some amount of truth in the reporter’s account of the state of nanotechnology in UK’s food industry, I would take it with a grain of salt and some degree of skepticism.

4 Ruth Seeley January 8, 2010 at 11:44 am

I was doing a media analysis of the political coverage of the coalition government our Opposition parties proposed a few months ago and was disgusted to see that three newspapers had used the exact same story but had altered the headlines for their three different target markets – the national newspaper; its Vancouver broadsheet and its Vancouver tabloid. So I’m afraid headlines, more than content, still do sell newspapers. I know I almost bought a copy of The Globe at the supermarket the other day when I saw the headline, ‘Dying Queen disinherits Prince Charles.’ Punishment for the gray goo remarks, no doubt. ;)

5 Andréia Azevedo Soares January 9, 2010 at 8:11 pm

Great blog, Andrew. I look around and I can hardly find a scientist so considerate with journalists as you.

As a journalist, I have just one thing to add to the discussion. Even though I respect and understand the (many many times difficult) work of a tabloid reporter, I do believe that every journalist must be prudent when he or she conveys the notion of an imminent risk. And, in my opinion, tabloids often fail to do so. (It might be argued that if they didn’t there would be a shortage of eye-catching headlines.)
When I read that nanoparticles can worm their way into my brain or kidneys, I want to know how likely it is to occur. I was not at that House of Lords event and Lord Krebs is not a friend of mine. I cannot obtain this information myself. As a reader, I count on the reporter to tell me that. I also count on him or her to explain me that, at this stage, the risk is not measurable, if it is the case. I can even cope with uncertainty but I want storytellers to explain me that, and also to present me comparison terms. They cannot simply leave me scared about microscopic and insidious compounds that can seize my liver like in an Alien film.
I am also told that the consequences are unknown. This is to say, I imagine, that the consequences can be good, bad or innocuous. We simply don’t know. As a reader, I am inclined to believe they are bad *precisely* because they are unknown – there is nothing more unsettling than facing something I cannot name, measure or control. The judgment I make toward this ‘grey goo’ is connected with my sensitivity. Human perception of risk is complex and may vary through time and according to context and circumstances. Nothing wrong with that. But there *is* something wrong when I feel that the same text which brought this new risk into my life (into my bowels!) is also adding up anxiety to my perception of the very same risk.
As a reader, I want somebody who helps me to establish a rational frame in the risk scenario. As a reader, I want the reporter to quote what independent expertises have to say about these risks. And, finally, as a journalist, I think it is part of our job to explain once and again what do we really talk about when we talk about risk. Writing that zero risk simply does not exist is a good start off.

P.S. This discussion makes me think about something I experienced many years ago back in Ispra (Italy), where I was attending to a meeting on food packaging at the Joint Research Centre (JRC). We, journalists, were very interested in molecular migration from plastic packages to food. We wanted to know how those molecules could harm us and what is their level of toxicity.
The answers provided by the JRC representatives were not vague but not precise either. They were giving general answers to general questions. It would always depend, they explained, on the package (what material the container was made of) and its content (you don’t heat orange juice in microwaves, but you might want to eat your soup nice and warm). It would also depend on the correct use of the packages (some are not prepared to be reheated or used as a Tupperware, for example).
I realized then that it would be difficult to find the definitive and answer we were looking for. It became clear that part of our stories would have to be filled with the uncertainties themselves – and it constituted a problem for me, I could see no story without a good quote on how risky those evil plastics were. It took me ages to accept that we could take advantage of this absence of “one-answer-fits-all” and invite the reader, for instance, to think about why our food *has* to be sold in plastic packages (full of molecules ready to migrate to our bodies and disrupt our endocrine system, one might say). Only when I began to explore this new angle I started to get juicy answers considering alternatives (plastic versus glass), pros and cons of active packaging and even risk assessment in hypothetical scenarios. Maybe I was too keen on zero-risk answers to have chosen this path before.

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