Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Update: GENE WARS MULTIMEDIA SPECIAL - errors included

ABC have finally replied to our complaint regarding problems with its "multimedia presentation "Gene Wars".  Looking over the response they have largely missed the point but we are now mindful that ABC consider this to be a  "multimedia presentation, not a scientific research paper". So I guess the factual transgressions, omissions and lack of balance are okay then? And they call this journalism!

1. The "infographic" titled "Corporate Control" includes a graph on the right hand size that incorrectly portrays the number of multinational companies in the market for genetic material. This gives a misleading impression that only 10 companies are involved. The source paper Public biotech 2007—the numbers by Stacy Lawrence & Riku Lähteenmäki ( Nature Biotechnology Volume 26 No 7 pp. 753-762) in Table 7 lists 429 public biotech companies. This hardly constitutes a "handful". The graph only considers sales and does not examine other factors such as research expenditure, employees or operating income. Considering employees shows more workers are employed by mid, small and micro-capitalised companies than by 10 large capitalised companies. The graphic should be amended to indicate the total number of companies involved.
2. The "infographic" titled "Food for thought" indicates 1405 patents for drought-resistant genes between 1994 and 2009. The source cited is Patent Lens. We are unable to replicate the number of patents claimed in the graph. A full text search of the words "drought-resistant" at Patent Lens yields 913 US patents granted. Does the ABC's graph include granted patents only or does it also include applications? Are the patents limited to the USA or other countries also included. In the accompanying report "Future of Food now a global battle" the number of patents is suggested to be "over 900".
Can ABC clarify the method used to establish the number of patents and print this along side the graphic, so that users can repeat the results?
3. As 7.00pm 13 April, 2010 the video slide show titled "Multimedia: In the lab" was not functioning. UPDATE 14 April 8:40 am: This presentation now appears to be working.
4. The presentation focuses on drought resistant genes, however future climate change may bring more rainfall to some regions. Future climate change will result in winners and losers as climate varies regionally. This aspect was not covered in the report and as such it lacks balance.
OUTCOME: Received 29 June 2010
Thank you for your email of 13 April concerning the ABC News Online special presentation “Gene Wars: the race to own our food”. Please accept my apologies for the delay in responding.

In keeping with ABC complaint handling procedures, your concerns have been investigated by Audience and Consumer Affairs, a unit separate to and independent from ABC program areas. In light of your concerns, we have reviewed the content to which you refer and assessed it against the ABC’s editorial requirements for accuracy and balance in news and current affairs content, as outlined in sections 5.2.2(c) and (e) of the ABC’s Editorial Policies: In the interests of procedural fairness, we have also sought and considered material from ABC News. As your complaint raises a number of specific concerns, I will respond to each in turn, below.

On the basis of your description in point one, we believe you are referring to the “Corporate Control” graph on the left hand side of the “Corporate Control” page, rather than either of the two graphs on the right hand side: ABC News have advised that the graph is intended to show that the worldwide market for genetic material is dominated by the three biggest players – Amgen, Genentech and Monsanto. They note that the graph does not claim to show every company with a stake in the market for genetic material, and clearly shows that the graph is measuring these companies by sales rather than any other metric.

On review, Audience and Consumer Affairs do not agree that the graph is misleading. We believe the labelling of the graph, and the particular type of graph used, made clear that this was not a full graphical representation of every company involved in the market, but rather an illustration that the market was dominated by a “handful”, namely three, companies. The fact that this analysis was based on sales, as opposed to research expenditure, employees or operating income, was also made clear, with the graph indicating it was based on “2007 Sales (US$ millions)”. Accordingly, Audience and Consumer Affairs are satisfied the graphic was presented in sufficient context to enable the audience to understand its content, in keeping with the ABC’s editorial requirement for accuracy in news and current affairs content.

In respect to your questions about the “Biotech boom” graphic that appears on the “Food for thought” page, ABC News have explained that they worked with Dr Richard Jefferson from Patent Lens to determine the most appropriate way to search the data. I understand that the search conducted was for granted patents in the US, Europe and Australia, using the search terms “seq id”, which identifies patents relating to genes, and “drought”. ABC News have advised that the figures shown in the graph reflect that search and, as the caption states, is intended to highlight a broad trend rather than be specific down to the last patent application. ABC News understand that the data held by Patent Lens is dynamic, and can change in view of factors such as many patent applications being confidential until granted.

On review, Audience and Consumer Affairs consider the graphic was appropriately labelled and captioned, indicating the source of the data and the fact it was showing a “broader trend”. We do not consider it necessary that the graph be accompanied by the specific search criteria used “so users can repeat the results”, as you suggest; the infographic is part of an online multimedia presentation, not a scientific research paper. Accordingly, in this context, we consider the trend graph noting its source provided sufficient context to meet the ABC’s editorial provisions for accuracy in news and current affairs content.

You also refer to the number of patents cited in the article titled “Future of food now a global battle”. The article specifically refers to “the largest private and public seed, biotech and agrichemical companies and institutions” having been granted “at least 900 patents”. I understand this differs from the “Biotech boom” graphic, which is not specific to companies or institutions of a particular size. ABC News have advised that the figure in the article was based on information provided by several sources, including UK Food Ethics Council trustee Geoff Tansey and the Australian National University’s Dr Luigi Palombi, as well as searches of the Patent Lens data.  On review, Audience and Consumer Affairs consider the use of these sources constituted reasonable efforts in the in the circumstances to ensure accuracy, as required by section 5.2.2(c) of the ABC’s Editorial Policies.

We note your view that the presentation lacks balance because it focussed on drought-resistant genes, despite IPCC projections of future climate change indicating some regions will be less affected by drought. ABC News have advised that the Gene Wars presentation is not about climate change science, but rather the future of food production in view of the patents held by companies on genetic material, and the intellectual property issues associated with that subject. They note that this is made clear in the text on the front page of the presentation ( and in the scope of the articles, infographics and multimedia presentations for Gene Wars.

I should explain that the ABC’s editorial standard for balance is based on the principle of fair representation of views, with the ABC’s Editorial Policies requiring the presentation of “principal relevant views on matters of importance” over time. In the case of Gene Wars, the matter of importance being explored was the investment in intellectual property rights over biological material and the potential of these rights to impact on food crop research and development, and therefore food production, in the future. On this front, ABC News note that the presentation featured a range of relevant views, including: Monsanto Australia’s Peter O’Keefe, Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan, UK Food Ethics Council trustee Geoff Tansey, farmers John and Jan Baxter, Professor Richard Trethowan from the University of Sydney’s Plant Breeding Institute, CSIRO scientist Dr TJ Higgins, molecular biologist and researcher Dr Richard Jefferson, and the United Nationals Special Rapporteur on the right to food Olivier de Schutter.

On review, while noting your concerns, Audience and Consumer Affairs are satisfied the Gene Wars presentation was in keeping with the ABC’s editorial standards for balance, having presented a range of principal relevant views on the matter of importance that was the subject of the story. Nonetheless, please be assured that your concerns and comments about this, and the other aspects of Gene Wars that were of concern to you, have been noted and brought to the attention of both ABC News management and the reporters involved. I should also add that, in respect to point three of your complaint, ABC News have confirmed that there was a temporary problem with the ‘Multimedia: In the lab’ video file; this was fixed on the day the presentation was launched and is now fully functional.

We again regret the delay in responding to your concerns on this matter. While Audience and Consumer Affairs have not upheld the substantive aspects of your complaint, we have found the ABC’s handling of your concerns to be in breach of the complaint handling provisions outlined in the ABC’s Editorial Policies, which require the ABC provide a response within 60 days. We regret that this did not occur in this instance and wish to assure you that this has been duly noted by both Audience and Consumer Affairs and ABC News management.

Thank you again for taking the time to write, and for your interest in the ABC. For your reference, a copy of the ABC Code of Practice is available at:

Yours sincerely
Audience & Consumer Affairs

COMMENT: Graphics should be properly labelled with precise source data and meaningful descriptions. Parameters used to mine third party data should be provided to allow results to be repeated.

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