Media coverage of organic food study: Hit or miss?

A study published in the September issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine has received a great deal of media attention this week. The Stanford University research examined the nutritional value of organic and conventionally grown foods. The manner

in which different media outlets have framed the findings of the study has generated varied reader comments, rebuke from the organic movement and discussion on the motivation for the research.

Study sees no nutritional edge in organic food” was the headline on the Sept. 3 article in USA Today. The lead paragraph continued: “Organic products have no significant nutritional advantage over conventional foods, even though consumers can pay more for them, a new study finds.”

A New York Times article, by Kenneth Chang, used a less fatalistic headline: “Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce.” So did the Associated Press article, as found on CBS News’ website: “Study questions how much better organic food is.” Both stories used the same structure as did the USA Today article. Early in the articles, facts are presented about the study findings indicating there are no nutritional advantages associated with organic products. The high cost of many organic products also is mentioned. Further on in the articles, information is presented about pesticides, and about environmental aspects associated with organic and conventional farming.

Within two days the AP article had circulated throughout the United States and around the world. From India to Ireland, consumers were hearing about the study’s findings.

Also within a couple of days, organic growers, readers and other members of the media were pushing back against the initial coverage. Comment boards and columnists weighed in on the issue, stating that both the study and news articles had missed the big picture when it comes to organic farming.

In a direct response to the study and media coverage, the Organic Trade Association issued a press release with this headline: “Stanford research confirms health benefits driving consumers to organic.” This article points out the difference in pesticide use between conventional and organic farming early in the piece. It also references the environmental issues considered when farming organically. Overall, the article downplays the study findings regarding nutrition.

In a Sept. 4 column for U.S. News and World Report, medical doctor David Katz provided a look at what the term organic really means and how to evaluate the study statistically. As a professional health care provider, Katz offered context in which to consider the long-term implications of the study.

Reader comments, regardless of the version of the story, seemed to have three primary themes:

  • The study and articles had missed the larger point of organic farming – which, according to comments, is the environmental value.
  • There was a concern over who or what organization funded the study. The primary researcher, Crystal Smith-Spangler, was cited in reports saying the study was “independently funded.” Readers in their comments didn’t seem to buy this. Many said they thought agriculture corporations were behind the study. Several, despite no reference to the company, said Monsanto must have put the researchers up to this study and the findings.
  • Commenters voiced their commitment to growing organically, saying the real difference is between locally grown produce and mass-produced foods. Taste, nutrition and the environment all were factors discussed.

On Sept. 4, Chang followed up his original article with a question-and-answer piece addressing concerns raised by readers. The short article addresses issues of pesticides and environment, as well as the motivation for the study. Chang followed up the Q&A by responding to readers’ comments personally. In his replies, Chang offered straightforward answers to the comments and questions raised.

Did media do a good job on reporting the study findings? Or did media miss the big picture and motivation behind the organic food movement? Let Gateway Journalism Review know what you think. Email us at gatewayjr@siu.edu. We want to hear from you.