WHAT CAN BE GLEANED FROM NEWS COVERAGE
TO IMPROVE SCIENCE REPORTING AND ENHANCE PUBLIC LITERACY ABOUT AGRICULTURAL
BIOTECHNOLOGY IN GHANA
A content analysis of print and online sources was conducted to assess the performance
of the Ghanaian news media in reporting about agricultural biotechnology and to explain a very
negative public sentiment. The findings show the dominant presence of food security and food
safety issues in GM coverage that was overwhelmingly negative toward genetic engineering
and its agricultural products. Members of the food industry and government officials (mainly
politicians) were the most commonly cited information sources. A qualitative examination of
news discourse suggested ways to strengthen the effectiveness of communicating agricultural
information that will enhance public literacy and foster intelligent decision making about this
WHAT CAN BE GLEANED FROM NEWS COVERAGE
TO IMPROVE SCIENCE REPORTING AND ENHANCE PUBLIC LITERACY ABOUT AGRICULTURAL
BIOTECHNOLOGY IN GHANA
Although the President of the Republic of Ghana has signed the Ghana Biosafety Act
2011 (Act 831) on December 2011 following the passage of the Biosafety Bill on June 21, 2011
(USDA, 2014), the debate over whether the country should accept genetically modified
organisms (GMOs) into its food chain still rages. The Act is supposed to create a favorable
environment for the development and commercialization of biotechnology seeds and crops;
instead it became a lightning rod for the GMO opposition voices in the country.
Over the last two years, scientific work involving the application of GMOs in agriculture
has received considerable but contentious coverage in the Ghanaian media. More recently,
intense and decidedly negative coverage has been triggered by the introduction of the Plant
Breeders’ Rights Bill in the Parliament. The Bill, intended to establish a legal framework to
protect the rights of breeders of new varieties of plants or plant groupings and to promote the
breeding of new varieties, has been confused with the Biosafety Act that regulates all activities
related to the introduction of GMOs into the country (Parliament of Ghana, 2013). The furor
over the Plant Breeder’s Bill, commonly enacted by country-signatories to the International
Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, demonstrates the tension over the
relationship between patent rights and the intellectual property rights of plant breeders in the
The loud opposition has been highly successful in using the media to disseminate
negative GMO representations, including claims that GMOs cause diseases and contaminate
the environment. Such messages tap into feelings of fear and disgust, the reason why they stick
to people’s minds, leading columnist Joseph Gakpo (2015) of the Ghana News Agency to
conclude that “the media have failed Ghanaians on the GM foods debates.” These messages
and the emotions they generate are difficult to counter because scientists and journalists alike
find the science behind genetic transformation too complex to communicate.
Recent experiences and controversies around the Plant Breeders’ Bill have called into
question the preparedness of the scientific community to respond to issues related to two
topics that fuel the debate in the first place—biotechnology and biosafety as they are applied in
agriculture. At several forums that aim to educate the general public about the science and the
practice, issue stakeholders bemoan the obvious lack of communication skills and
communication strategy within the two sectors that are responsible for developing an informed
citizenry—the scientific community and the media.
As Ghana inaugurates a National Biosafety Authority to implement the Biosafety Act,
outreach approaches to different audience segments become critical. Factual and consistent
science-based messages need to identified and fashioned. Journalists and those in the media
sphere need to be oriented to the science and practice of biotechnology and biosafety.
The path that Ghana chooses with respect to agricultural biotechnology will have a
direct bearing on efforts to improve the competitiveness of its agricultural value chains. Thus, it
is pertinent to ask: (1) Exactly what are the messages that people are getting from the mass
media about agricultural biotechnology? (2) What are the messages that need to be explained?
(3) What information are people likely to get wrong if they are not emphasized?
Existing empirical studies on media performance in covering GM crops, in particular,
mainly reflect the experience of the North. As Chong et al. (2004) suggest, the vast majority of
studies on the media’s coverage of biotechnology are based in the US or Europe. Studies that
examine the African context are few and far between. Given the food security concerns of the
continent, assessing GM reporting in Ghana contributes to the dearth of investigations about
the state of science reporting in this unique political, social, and cultural milieu of sub-Saharan
Because government investments in science and technology partly depends on public
support based on people’s assessments of their utility, it is important for citizens to be aware,
be informed and make sound decisions about the trajectory their country needs to take with
respect to this controversial technology. The findings of this study are expected to provide
insights on how GM crops are portrayed in Ghana, considered to be a model developing
economy in West Africa and for which agriculture is an economic backbone. The results are
intended to assist communication practitioners in widening their perspectives on risk reporting
and to inform policymakers as they continue to deliberate the pros and cons of GM
Literature Review and Theoretical Rationale
Agricultural biotechnology and developing countries
Biotechnology has long sparked trans-Atlantic debates between and among the
developed countries of North America and Europe that have adopted contradictory positions
regarding GM crops (Frewer et al., 2002; Poortinga & Pidgeon, 2001). Often left out of these
debates, developing nations, policy experts argue, are the real stakeholders in the adoption of
GM technology because it is in those countries where sizeable gains can be realized and
distinctive perils are more explicitly identified. The developing world stands to benefit more
from GM technology because poor soils, extreme moisture, heat and drought, and high
incidences of pests and parasites can lead to massive crop losses not often encountered in the
Western world (Zepeda, 2006). Judging by the rapid expansion of areas planted to GM crops,
farmers are apparently satisfied with GM crop performance.
GM crops have been grown commercially since 1996. Since then, biotech crop hectares
have increased from 1.7 million planted in six countries to 182 million in 28 countries in 2014
(James, 2014). The largest proportions of these areas are dedicated to soybean, maize, cotton
and canola. Other biotech crops grown in 2014 were alfalfa, sugar beet, papaya, squash, poplar,
tomato, sweet pepper, and brinjal eggplant (James, 2014).
Statistics show that growth rates are faster in developing nations than in industrial
countries. Of the 28 countries that planted biotech crops in 2014, 20 were developing and eight
were industrial countries. What are now considered as biotech “mega-countries” (those
planting 50,000 hectares or more to GM crops) include China, India, Brazil, Argentina and South
Africa (James, 2014). As the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech
Applications reports, farmers from Latin America, Asia, and Africa grew 53% of global biotech
crops in 2014 compared with industrial countries at 85 million hectares, or 47% of the global
total (2014). A record 18 million farmers grew biotech crops last year (James, 2014), and the
outlook in the second decade of biotech commercialization appears encouraging.
Aside from having a more open attitude toward genetic engineering compared to their
western counterparts, developing nations also differ in their views about and expectations for
biotechnology. Some are averse to risk (Zepeda, 2006; Gruere and Sengupta, 2009); others
worry about the influence of multinational corporations, international traders and importers,
and activist groups on public attitudes (Gruere and Sengupta, 2009). Because the vibrance of
the scientific enterprise depends on public support, determining public reactions to the
introduction of a scientific innovation is of concern to policy makers. The more astute decision
makers recognize that how science is covered by the mass media has a discernible impact on
public perception of food and related issues.
Media performance in reporting GM
When it comes to the public’s perception of risk, several researchers have stressed the
profound influence of the media (Nisbet & Lewenstein, 2001; Kasperson et al., 2003). Indeed,
the media both reflect and influence public perceptions of what constitutes a hazard and how
serious the associated risks are by selecting certain issues for attention and by the kind of
information they provide about risk events (Singer & Endreny, 1993). Renn (1991) posits that
the volume or intensity of coverage alone has a direct bearing on public perceptions of risk.
Tuchman (1978) was first to recognize the vital role framing plays in the media’s news
gathering and the audience members’ news processing, suggesting that the “media use frames
to construct social reality for audiences and thus give meaning to words and images”
(Brunkens, 2006, p. 10). Thus, how the media frame an issue helps shape people’s
understanding and perspective on the topics in the news. Since the late 1990s, communication
researchers have shown increased interest in how the media have covered biotechnology (e.g.,
Gaskell et al., 1999; Nisbet & Lewenstein, 2001). This research emphasis is not unusual given
that the media have been (and are likely to continue to be) the principal sources and prime
conduits of information on science topics for the lay public (Villela-Vila & Costa-Font, 2008). In
Ghana, studies show that the public gets information on science and technology primarily from
the mass media (Buah, 2011). Hence, the media play a significant role in defining what the
general public understands about a technology (such as genetic engineering), and at the same
time provide an environment by which public opinion is formed. The news media thus serve as
important instruments for informal learning and contribute to how citizens judge the
complexities of science and technology or policy debates.
Themes. The pluralist theory of the media suggests that by reflecting the balance of
forces within society, the media tell audiences how to think about issues and thus shape public
attitudes about issues (McCombs, 2001). Villela-Vila and Costa-Font (2008) argue that how the
press prioritizes issues and how it presents these issues may lead to an exaggeration or
attenuation of social risks in people’s minds. Kasperson et al.’s (1988) social amplification of risk
framework (SARF) states, among others, that the quality and quantity of information audiences
receive can attenuate or amplify public perception of a risk situation (Kasperson et al., 1988).
According to this framework, it is important to take into account “the public’s interpretation
and response to information flows from the media, one of the primary risk amplification
mechanisms” (p. 185). Also emphasized in SARF is the media’s role as gatekeepers of
How does the media create this effect? Gitlin (1980) suggests that frames—or
overarching story themes—enable journalists, when they are dealing with information, to
“recognize it as information and to assign it to cognitive categories” (p. 21). Journalists then
build meaningful structures with the selected information. Thus, frames are “active
information-generating, as well as information-screening devices” (p. 21). Like most issues,
GMOs have been framed by the mass media in several ways (e.g., as hazards, as a human or
environmental health issue, as an economic story, or as a religious or moral concern).
Examining Southeast Asian newspapers, Asoro (2012), found that Indonesia’s Jakarta Post
focused on the theme of policy and legal issues while safety and food security themes were
dominant in the pages of Malaysia’s Star and Cambodia’s Phnom Pehn Post. Research and
development themes were most frequently observed in the coverage of Than Nien, a
Vietnamese elite newspaper. What are the most dominant themes in the Ghanaian media?
Sources of information. How journalists come to frame a story is often assisted by the
sources they cite in their reports. Lester (2010) explains that because of professional ideologies,
journalists tend “to ground stories in ‘objective’ and ‘authoritative’ statements from
‘accredited’ sources and thus provide structured preference ‘to the opinions of the powerful’”
(p. 90). He posits that elite or non-elite political contenders and the ordinary or the affected
compete for access to and space in the media. As such, sources need to be examined as holders
of power and as representatives of organized and unorganized groups to understand the news
Because reporters refer to them for facts, ideas, analyses and evaluations, news sources
have a great influence on how news is framed. They function as “primary definers” of topics
whose interpretations become the basis for arguments to be labeled pertinent or irrelevant.
Studies on GM reporting by the print media show the constant presence of politicians,
advocacy groups, and scientists as news sources. Mula (2006), for example, observed the same
in the coverage of GM rice by the Philippine mainstream newspapers; so did Xiang (2007) in the
Chinese and Thai newspapers’ reporting of GM rice and GM papaya, respectively. Are the same
source categories also the most cited in the Ghanaian media?
Tone of coverage. According to Brunkens (2006), “the tone the media use to
disseminate news tells the audience not just the news, but also the opinion of a particular
reporter” (p. 20), suggesting that tone or valence “is one more part of media framing and
agenda setting that influences audience members to think a certain way about a particular
issue” (p. 4). Hornig-Priest (1988) provides some evidence for this when she observes that news
stories with a social-political slant (shaped mainly by political sources) led to higher perceived
risk than those with a scientific slant (contributed mainly by sources within the science
community) that tend to assure readers with more safety and precautionary information.
Villela-Villa and Costa-Font (2008) found a correlation between negatively-valenced news about
GM foods and the lack of public trust in regulatory bodies.
Finding that the Thai news media demonstrated the most negative attitude toward GM
crops due to the intense lobbying of advocacy groups, Xiang (2007) hypothesizes that tone is
associated with a story’s information sources. Asoro’s (2012) survey of the newspapers of
record in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia found a neutral stance in news reports,
reflecting the journalistic tenet of balanced reporting and fair coverage. She found the
Cambodian and Philippine newspapers the most negatively slanted. Will the Ghanaian coverage
also exhibit the same negative orientation?
To recap, this study asks:
RQ1: How did the Ghanaian news media perform in covering this controversial issue in
terms of themes portrayed, the tone of coverage, and the sources of information cited?
RQ2: What are the implications of a qualitative scrutiny of news content for messages
and message design to enhance media performance and public biotech literacy?
To assess media performance, a content analysis of news reports about GM crops in the
Ghanaian print and online outlets was conducted. This study analyzed GM news reports over
the past five years (July 1, 2010 to July 30, 2015), a period that saw significant strides in GM
research and development—as well as policy formulation—in the country. Straight news
reports, feature stories, editorials and commentaries, and readers’ responses were analyzed.
Stories written by foreign correspondents and obtained through wire feeds and non-African
news services were not considered. Hence, a census of articles that satisfied the above criteria
The exclusively online sources searched were (1) the news sites of radio stations with
substantial airwave coverage (StarrFMonline.com, citiFMonline.com, radioXYZonline.com and
modernGhana.com); (2) the most visited indigenous online platforms, including
myjoyonline.com and adomonline.com, both operated by the Multimedia Group, which is the
nation's largest radio, television and online network and sub-Saharan Africa's biggest media
entity (Modern Ghana, 2012); GhanaWeb, a vertical portal with the ability to listen to over 200
Ghanaian radio stations and social networks; VibeGhana.com, which mainly delivers breaking
news; and (3) the websites of non-government organizations (NGOs), including Public Agenda,
which is operated by the Organization for African Development (Ghanaweb, n.d.).
Also searched were the print and online versions of the following newspapers: (1) The
Ghanaian Chronicle, an English-language daily published from Accra, the capital. It has a daily
circulation of 45,000 copies, making it the biggest private newspaper in Ghana (Kidon Media,
2013). (2) The Daily Graphic is a state-owned daily also published in Accra. Cecil King of the
London Daily Mirror Group established the paper, along with the Sunday Mirror, in 1950. With a
circulation of 100,000 copies, it is arguably the most widely read daily newspaper in the country
(Graphic.com, n.d). (3) The Daily Guide is a private-owned daily published six times a week in
Accra and, with a circulation of about 22,000 copies a day, is regarded as the most widely
circulated independent paper in the nation (Daily Guide.com, n.d.). (4) The Business & Financial
Times (B&FT) primarily serves the business and commercial sector, policy makers, investors, the
international community and Ghana’s diplomatic missions. It employs over 60 people in its
offices in Accra, Sekondi-Takoradi, Kumasi and Tamale, and has affiliates in Nigeria, South
Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya and the UK (BFT Online, n.d.). These newspapers were selected
because they have a wide circulation and have been known to demonstrate strong inter-media
agenda-setting effects. All are published in English, and all have a strong web presence.
Stories also were culled from the online portals of the following news services and
agencies: (1) The Ghana news Agency (GNA), which is the first news agency to be established in
sub-Saharan Africa (GNA.com, n.d.). It serves as the central news collection agent of the state
and covers the regional and district capitals. Its more than 200 employees produce, among
others, the Home News Bulletin, a daily package of stories from the head and regional offices
and stringers and delivered electronically to subscribers; Export News, which reports about
Ghanaian events and current affairs for a foreign audience; and the Daily Summary, which are
major news capsules of the day. GNA website subscribers include major newspapers, radio and
television stations, diplomatic missions, corporate and government institutions (Kidon Media,
2013). (2) AllAfrica.com aggregates, produces and distributes 1,600 news items daily from over
140 African news organizations to a global public (Kidon Media, 2013). (3) Pambazuka News,
dubbed “a web forum for social justice,” is produced by a pan-African community of academics,
policy makers, social activists, artists, and other influentials. It has won a number of
international awards, and has been voted one of the “top 10 sites that are changing the world
of internet and politics” four years running (2005-2008) in competitions organized by
PoliticsOnline and the World E-Gov Forum (Kidon Media, 2013).
The complete story—including the headline, the lead paragraph, and body text—was
the unit of analysis for this study.
Variables and their measurement
Media performance in covering GM crops is seen has having three dimensions: (1)
theme, (2) valence of the stories toward GM crops, and (3) sources cited.
A theme or frame refers to the overarching story line. According to Chong et al. (2009)
who also examined agricultural biotechnology news coverage, an article may demonstrate any
or a combination of the following themes: (1) human, animal and environmental health safety;
(2) food security, including the extent to which GM crops are seen as being able to address the
problems of hunger, malnutrition, disease, poverty, social stability, sustainability or self-
sufficiency; (3) the economic dimension, including existing and potential markets, impact on the
stock market, industrial and agricultural growth, reaction of investors, and implications for the
domestic economy; (4) legal and policy issues, including government policies, ownership of
intellectual property, biosafety protocols and government regulation of development and
distribution; (5) controversy, dispute or debate, including the moral and ethical implications of
genetic engineering; (6) public protests, including public demonstrations against confined field
trials or commercialization, demonstrations on the streets and other public spaces; (7) the
extent to which GMOs are present in a given country, including the import and export of GMOs
and their availability; (8) research and development efforts, including basic and applied
research, field testing and verification, biosafety tests; and (9) other themes that cannot be
placed under any of the eight categories above. Because a story may exhibit multiple themes or
frames, all frames that were detected within a story were coded.
Valence refers to the overall tone or orientation of the news story toward genetic
engineering or its agricultural products. It has three categories: negative (0), neutral (1), or
positive (3). A story is coded as having a negative valence when it suggests uncertainty, danger,
threat and disadvantages of genetic engineering and GM crops. An article displays a positive
valence when it reports the promise of national prosperity, economic growth, health promotion
and general well-being associated with the deployment of genetic engineering as part of
Ghana’s development agenda. When positive and negative arguments are present in equal
proportions, the article was characterized as having a neutral valence. Articles that are difficult
to categorize as positive or negative also were coded as neutral.
Information sources refer to persons, organizations, groups and entities who were cited
in the news reports as originators of information, data, interpretation, opinions, or analysis.
Source attributions indicate the extent to which the newspapers favored the voices or points of
view of various stakeholders. Following the categories used by Xiang (2007) and Chong et al.
(2009), sources were classified into: (1) scientists, professors or researchers from government
or non-government universities and research centers or institutions (e.g., a senior researcher at
the Savannah Agricultural Research Institute); (2) scientific journals and publications, including
their editors; (3) multinational corporations that produce GM seeds (e.g., Monsanto, Pioneer
Hi-bred, Syngenta and their subsidiaries) and their representatives; (4) members of the food
industry and their associates (e.g., Ghana Food and Beverage Industries Ltd.); (5) ordinary
citizens and consumers, but not farmers; (6) international advocacy groups (e.g., Greenpeace,
Friends of the Earth); (7) local or regional NGOs, excluding Greenpeace and the like (e.g., Food
Sovereignty Ghana); (8) International development groups (e.g., the United Nations and its
affiliate organizations) and international and regional financial institutions (e.g., World Bank
and the African Development Bank); (9) politicians and government employees, except
government scientists; (10) farmers and farmers’ associations; (11) local and international news
outlets and agencies (e.g., Daily Graphic, the Ghana News Agency) and wire agencies (e.g.,
Reuters, Agence France Press, the Associated Press); (12) foreign government institutions (e.g.,
US Department of Agriculture) and international scientists or researchers; and (13) others (e.g.,
religious leaders, lawyers and unnamed or unidentified sources). All sources cited in the story
Two graduate students were trained on the coding protocols using 10% of the entire
sample of 312 articles. Intercoder reliability for each of the variables of interest was computed
using Scott’s pi. They were 0.82 for themes, 0.80 for sources cited, and 0.85 for valence.
To answer RQ2, an in-depth analysis of the media discourse was conducted.
A total of 312 news items were collected over five years majority of which, 252 (80.8%),
were from online sources. Only 62 stories (19.2%) came from print editions. Most were straight
news reports (37.5%) and feature stories (32.7%); the rest were editorial or opinion pieces
(28.2%) and readers’ comments or letters to the editor (0.3%). The length of the articles ranged
from 46 to 4,882 words (M=880 words) with the online stories significantly longer than those
that saw print (t=3.31, p=.001, df=124.5).
Themes. Table 1 shows the frequency distribution of the detected themes. The results
show emphasis given to food security and safety issues, which are regular and persistent
dimensions of debates about GM crops in many parts of the globe (e.g., Xiang, 2007; Mula,
2006). The findings also show considerable attention given to the legal and policy aspects of
GM use exhibited by articles that report various interpretations of existing laws, regulations and
Food security was the most commonly observed theme despite the coverage’s general
anti-GM stance, with many stories mentioning agricultural biotech’s potential contribution to
the continuing fight against hunger, especially in a continent that is already experiencing the
agricultural impact of climate change. As one reader explains, “I prefer to eat a product that
may or may not kill me in 30 years than go hungry today.” Safety concerns is a close second,
suggesting continuing worry over GM’s alleged adverse effects on humans and on the
environment. According to an editorial writer, “In every scientific research there is always a
margin of at least 5% error; in the case of GMOs, the 5% error has never been explained and [so
are] its implications to food and health.” Navarro et al. (2011) reported similar findings,
observing that negative articles in Philippine newspapers tended to focus on health issues that
were “more imagined than real,” such as the risks of contracting cancer and other diseases.
Articles in the current sample offer a litany of serious health risks associated with GM food,
including infertility, auto-immune problems, heart diseases, asthma, fibroids, diabetes,
accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal
system, mental retardation, baldness, a host of allergies, and homosexuality. The economic
aspects of the issue, mainly displayed by stories that worry about Ghana’s competitiveness in
the international market with or without GMO assistance, was the third most frequently
occurring theme. Unlike in neighboring Burkina Faso that has a permissive GM policy, strong
resistance to the technology has clogged the wheels of GM research in Ghana. Statements such
as, “It will be a shame if Ghanaian farmers cannot have access to GM cotton; they will lose out
to Burkina Faso cotton growers.” “We cannot afford to be left behind; GMOs offer quality
products to meet the criteria of global markets,” demonstrate the economic theme.
Tone. Newspaper coverage in the six countries exhibited a decidedly negative valence
toward GM crops. A total of 204 articles (65.4%) showed a negative slant, 62 (19.9%) displayed
a neutral tone, and only 46 articles (14.7%) portrayed GM crops positively. There was no
significant difference between online and print stories in terms of valence (t=0.80, p=.277,
df=97.15). If the tenets of framing theory are correct, the press’ overwhelming anti-GM
sentiment must have contributed to negative public perceptions. Indeed Buah (2011) found the
Ghanaian public generally unwilling to accept GMOs and reluctant to dedicate more public
funds to GM research.
Sources cited. The presence of multiple sources is a journalistic standard that
demonstrates ability to gain access to data, expert opinion and informed interpretations.
Because the sources that supply journalists with information have a strong tendency to
influence story frames, this study also analyzed source attributions. As shown in Table 2, the
most frequently mentioned were (1) members of the food industry and their associates, (2)
politicians and government officials (except government scientists and researchers), and (3)
local, regional and international NGOs, in that order. Hall et al. (1978) refer to these dominant
sources as the “primary definers” of issues whose interpretations become the basis for whether
arguments and counter-arguments should be labeled pertinent or irrelevant. The perspectives
of these top three sources imbue the Ghanaian coverage with a strong negative slant.
Who were the most vociferous? Three organizations stand out. The most formidable
appears to be the NGO Food Sovereignty Ghana, which took the Ministry of Food and
Agriculture and the Ministry of the Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation to the
Human Rights Division of the High Court over the alleged “commercial release” of BT cowpea
and GM rice. (This is an improbable allegation considering that the Legal Instruments that will
pave the way for commercialization are still under debate in Parliament). The second is the
Convention People’s Party, chaired by the high-profile Samia Yaba Nkrumah, daughter of iconic
and highly revered former president Kwame Nkruma. The Party was first to characterize the
Plant Breeders’ Rights Bill as giving geneticists carte blanche to alter whatever they wish and
confusing it with the Biosafety Act. The third is the Peasant Farmers Association of Ghana that
organizes spirited “thematic” marches (more recently, “The seed belongs to us, not Monsanto”
march), mainly in the capital. Needless to say, these organizations are not media shy.
The science community, on the other hand, is slow to respond. Members of the
scientific community constituted only 17.16% of the total number of sources cited. The almost
negligible reference to farmers (20 or 6% of total cites) adds to the disproportionate weight
given to the viewpoints of politicians and advocacy groups. It also suggests that farmers and
farming communities are being sidelined in debates and decisions about GM technology.
Implications for messages and message design to upgrade ag biotech literacy
A qualitative scrutiny of news content brought to light errors in news reports and
weaknesses in science reporting that might have fueled misconceptions and apprehensions.
Given the strong anti-GM public sentiment (Buah, 2011), a realistic communication goal is to
move public perception from negative to neutral. Such an objective capitalizes on the
assumptions of social judgment theory (Sherif and Hovland, 1969), which states that individuals
tend to weigh every new idea by comparing it with his/her present point of view to determine
how that idea is to be positioned in a personal attitude scale. It posits, among others, that
audiences with a neutral stance on issues—those who are not strongly committed to an
attitude—are more open-minded and have a wider latitude of acceptance of arguments and
counter-arguments. Neutral audience members, by extension, are able to learn more.
Toward this goal, it is important for the public to be informed by the best available
science. To be able to participate intelligently in dialogues about this topic, audiences should be
knowledgeable about the basic and underlying aspects of genetic engineering and its
agricultural products, at the minimum. A closer inspection of Ghanaian news reports
illuminates recurring errors, inaccuracies and inadequacies in science reporting that can be
alleviated by good journalistic practices. The most evident ones are as follows:
1. The science and the process can be explained better. Several steps are involved in
fashioning transgenic crops. First, nucleic acid is extracted. The transgene containing the
desired trait is then introduced into plant cells either with the use of a bacterium or by loading
DNA onto micro-carriers, such as fine gold particles, that are blasted to hit the target crop plant
tissue at high speed and pressure so that the gene integrates within the chromosome. Next, the
cells or tissues assumed to have been transformed are selected and grown in a medium; their
shoots are elongated, rooted and hardened before being transferred to a greenhouse. Genetic
characterization studies are then conducted, both at the molecular level to determine whether
the genes have been duly transferred, and at the physical level to see whether the plants are
expressing the desired traits. During controlled field-testing for performance under natural
conditions, scientists get an opportunity to study the plants’ characteristics and their ability to
withstand pest attack or drought. Resistant plants are selected to produce subsequent
generations. These tests are performed for several plant generations to confirm that the level
of resistance is stable (Navarro et al., 2006).
Even a highly abridged version of these steps cannot be discerned in the Ghanaian
stories. Instead, simplistic ways of portraying this complicated process litter the news
landscape, most of them framing the technology as easy to implement. These simplified
representations and abstractions foster the notion that scientists can readily subject any plant
to genetic manipulation, hence the frequently repeated assertion that “scientists have been
tampering with nature and playing god.”
2. Not everything is being genetically modified; there are important reasons why crops
are being transformed. Transgenic technology becomes an option for crop improvement when
the available germplasm has limited variability and may lack the genes for major diseases and
pest resistance or other traits of agronomic interest (ISAAA, 2005). This is a boon to plant
breeders who are always in search of varieties that can tolerate adverse agro-climatic
conditions, the major reason why crops are being altered to be drought-, flood-, or salt-tolerant
in the first place. There is also a need for bumper harvests without putting too much fertilizers,
herbicides and pesticides. Aside from the need to satisfy the global demand for food, feed and
fuel, plants also are being transformed to be inexpensive sources of pharmaceutical products.
Scientist also resort to GM technology to “biofortify” crops (i.e., to increase their nutritional
Developing a hybrid with one or more transgenic traits from conception to commercial
release requires tremendous investment of time and resources. McDougall (2011) found that
the cost of discovery, development and authorization of a new plant biotechnology trait
introduced between 2008 and 2012 was $136 million. On average, about 26% of those costs
($35.1 million) were incurred as part of the regulatory testing and registration process. He also
found that the average time from initiation of a discovery project to commercial launch is about
13 years. Not knowing the rationale for genetic engineering, the investments it requires, and
the perceived ease of the process may prompt people to think that the majority of food items
available today have been subjected to genetic manipulation in some shape or form.
3. Biosafety protocols govern the development and commercialization of GM products.
GM crops are among the most rigorously tested agricultural commodities. There are several
requirements before they are approved for commercial distribution. First, controlled field trials
are carried out only after clearances are obtained from a research institute’s biosafety
committee as well as from national regulatory authorities. When the contained field trials are
successful, the crop is taken for open field-testing in selected farmers’ fields on a limited scale.
Under field conditions, scientists measure environmental impact, including effects on non-
target insects, “weediness,” and enhanced abilities to cross to wild relatives. Most regulatory
bodies require several years of these trials. Food and feed testing involves initially comparing
the nutritional composition of plants and any derivative products against their non-transgenic
counterparts. Because the transgene often produces a novel protein not normally found in the
plant, a number of tests are conducted to determine whether the new protein is allergenic or
toxic to humans or animals (Navarro et al., 2006). This hierarchical, multi-layered process and
the fact that many products currently on the market might not make it through such stringent
testing procedures, are seldom mentioned in news reports. Indeed, very rarely did the stories
show the intricacies of the process, an information gap likely to lead people to assume that GM
products are readily available without any oversight.
4. The scientific voice could be amplified. The content analysis findings indicate that
members of the food industry and politicians or government officials dominate the source
menu of journalists about this scientific issue. Because of their structural connectedness to the
media sector, they are often asked to provide facts, opinions and interpretations about a topic
about which many are ill trained. So that the public is exposed more to science frames, the
views of those with the proper expertise and credentials should be systematically incorporated
in news accounts. Members of the scientific community could be trained to better engage the
5. News reports and information sources should help address public fear. Psychologists
say that the human mind is highly susceptible to negative and emotional representations
(Siegrist & Cvetkovich, 2001), which abound in Ghanaian media portrayals. Fear is fueled by
articles claiming that GM foods contain poisonous organisms that are dangerous to the body's
immune system because they are essentially “cross-breeds of different species rather than
[products] of organic, natural ways.” To many, the science of GMOs is highly counter-intuitive,
which makes them even more susceptible to claims that sooner or later, some ailment will
result from one’s exposure to it. To allay fears, decision analysts recommend putting research
findings, facts and figures into context (Kasperson et al., 1988; Ren, 1991). An in-depth look at
news content shows that stories seldom clarify if research findings about, for example, the link
between GMOs and some malady, are preliminary and inconclusive. Many neglect to mention
whether the findings differ with previous studies and why, while others generalize the effects of
studies restricted to populations of a certain age or gender or with specific genetic,
environmental, or other predisposing conditions.
6. Emphasize the relationship between food and people. Consumers new to the topic of
food biotechnology are not likely to be convinced that it is a good idea to have “genetically
modified organisms” in their cereal. However, it would be easier for them to understand that
the vitamin content of their cereal was increased through biotechnology, thus providing
improved nutrition. Underscoring the relationship between food and people expands the
dialogue and puts the products, not the technology, at the forefront of deliberations.
7. GMOs are not the exclusive purview of Monsanto; there is local capability to develop
GM crops. About GM foods, conspiracy beliefs abound in Ghanaian news reports. Those who
oppose GM technology contend, for example, that profit-driven giant multinational
corporations are out to destroy organic or ecological agriculture in a move to control farming
around the world. This grand scheme to monopolize global agriculture has been bandied about
in opinion pieces that warn about a “GMOcalypse,” suggesting that through GMOs, “the West
intends to re-colonize and enslave Africa.” Stories warn that the combined effect of these “Big
Ag initiatives” is to hand over Africa’s food and seed sovereignty to foreign corporations,
reducing the availability of local plant varieties, weakening Africa’s rich biodiversity, and
denying millions of farmers the right to breed and share crops needed to feed their families.
Such statements dismiss the fact that there is strong domestic research and development
capability. In the northern part of the country alone, local scientists have come up with cowpea
varieties resistant to the moth Maruca vitrata, a pantropical menace to leguminous crops. BT
cotton, GM rice and sweet potatoes also have been cleared for confined trials and evaluation.
8. Agricultural biotechnology is but one of the many tools farmers can use to supply
people with food that is safe, affordable, plentiful, flavorful, nutritious, convenient and
sustainable. It is generally accepted that GM crops is just one of the many strategies needed to
clothe and fuel nine billion people estimated to be living by the year 2020. The narratives
around many agriculture-related controversies, including genetic engineering, usually frame
issues as zero-sum games—organic or conventional, antibiotic-injected or antibiotic-free, GM or
“natural” crops. Given the global community’s food security challenges, future conversations
should shift the conjunction from “or” to “and.”
9. Science—and the products of science—can come alive by using evocative metaphors.
The general public has the chance to form a wealth of fragmented opinions about GMOs from a
large variety of mediated views put forward by various social actors, such as the mass media,
industry and regulatory bodies, in the public arena. Thus, audiences need to classify competing
information as they develop their conceptualization of an unfamiliar phenomenon. In a very
visual culture like Ghana, this process can be accomplished efficiently with the use of
metaphors (Christidou et al., 2004) that resonate with the local culture. Those against the
technology describe GMOs as “Frankenfoods,” unnatural life forms created by scientific hubris
that wreaks death and destruction. In the same vein, GMO proponents can use the frightened
angry mob in the Frankenstein story, out to kill what they fear, as an apt metaphor for how the
most virulent anti-GM segments are behaving.
9. Cut down the jargon. Consumer understanding and acceptance of any new idea
changes dramatically depending on the language used (IFIC Foundation, 2013). A closer
examination of the stories show that agricultural biotechnology is often discussed in terms that
are overly technical for the average consumer. Technical jargon, although accurate, can be
alarming and confusing to the general public, leading to misunderstandings about
biotechnology’s purpose, uses, and benefits. Thus, experts recommend some “words to use and
words to lose” in biotech reporting. The “words to lose” tend to be technical or scientific, sound
unfamiliar, and evoke uncertainty, risk, or danger. The “words to use” sound familiar, provide
reassurance, and establish a personal connection.
10. Journalists will benefit from a credible knowledge repository. How do reporters learn
about biotech and biosafety? In many editorial pieces, opinion writers volunteer that they do “a
quick Google search” to be acquainted with scientific discoveries and innovations they are
assigned to write about. This practice can be dangerous given the hodgepodge of unverified
information online, especially in “commando” sites. This information gathering tendency
suggests the need for an information clearinghouse of sorts—a trusted website to which
reporters can regularly refer, one that is updated by capsule news items; that lists relevant
scientists, their expertise, and their contact information; and that could direct journalists to
long-standing reputable “hard science” online sources.
By analyzing the content of English-language news sources, this study assessed the
performance of the Ghanaian news media in reporting about agricultural biotechnology. The
findings show the overwhelming presence of food security and food safety issues in the
coverage. The range of information sources cited show an array of forces that are trying to
influence the framing of the GM debate. Members of the food industry and government
officials (mainly politicians) were the most commonly cited in a coverage that is overwhelmingly
negative about the technology. These findings suggest the fundamental role of the media as a
venue where opposing views about GM technology compete for public acceptance and support.
Next, the study distilled from the findings ten ways to strengthen the effectiveness of
content and methods of communicating agricultural information. A qualitative look at news
discourse suggests that journalists will do a better job of enhancing public literacy by explaining
the science, the process and the rationale. The Ghanain public also will be better served by
robust descriptions of the biosafety and policy frameworks that undergird the process. To make
scientific information more accessible to a lay audience, reporters could limit the use of
technical terms and employ metaphors. The scientific community can assist journalists in their
tasks by creating a knowledge repository as part of an information service. Such a service can
be responsible for acquiring and managing databases, information resources and reference
standards relevant to ag biotech. Ideally it should be able to link the Ghana to African research
institutions and to global biotechnology information services and online data banks.
A more informed public fosters constructive engagement, instead of continuous
polarization. Thus, replacing the tyranny of the “or” with narratives that offer people more
options and strategy combinations to achieve food security will greatly enhance constructive
The results of a content analysis are, by nature, limited to an evaluation of media
performance. Future studies could endeavor to match the content analysis results with those of
public perceptions that can be obtained through survey data. The presence of more than one
frame in a story requires more astuteness in assigning dominance to one theme over others.
Future studies should focus on how to resolve this methodological difficulty. Further
investigations also should be able to disaggregate the strength of the contributions of different
media in the shaping of audience cognitions. Such studies can compare the performance of the
online media, which have been increasingly exerting its force especially among young audiences
across the globe, against those of the traditional media such as newspapers, TV, and radio
specifically in terms of their ability to communicate contending viewpoints engendered by
scientific and technological breakthroughs.
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Table 1. Themes evident in news reports
% of total
Food security 117 26.00
Safety issues related to human, animal or environmental
Legal issues related to agricultural biotechnology and
Economic dimension of growing GM crops 25 5.55
Controversy, disputes, debates 25 5.55
Research and development 25 5.55
Public protests, demonstrations against GMOs 15 3.33
Other, including presence of GMOs in the country, seed
monopoly of international corporations
1 Most stories contain multiple themes.
Table 2. Sources of information cited in news reports
% of total
Members of the food industry and their associates 82 24.26
Politicians and government officials, except government
scientists and researchers
Local, regional and international NGOs 61 18.05
Local and international scientists, professors or researchers
affiliated with universities and research centers
Local and international news agencies and outlets 38 11.23
Farmers and farmers’ associations 20 5.92
Others, including religious leaders, lawyers, unnamed experts
or authorities, representatives of multinational corporations,
international advocacy groups, international development
groups and financial institutions
1 Most stories contain multiple information sources