National Geographic Finds a Cash Cow in the Dairy Industry

A troubling Facebook post popped onto my feed the other day:

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It’s a National Geographic post sponsored by Land O’Lakes, a large American agribusiness and food company.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Arguably, news media and private businesses have always been in bed together. ‘Sponsored’ or ‘branded’ content, more recently called ‘native advertising’, is certainly not a new thing. But in today’s era of endless streams of online media, the line between organic content and sponsored messages is more blurred than ever. And when an entity like National Geographic—perceived by many as a trusted source for stories about nature, science, and exploration—starts sharing content sponsored by corporate special interests it begins to violate that trust.

Dairy’s Modern Life

If you click on the post link, you’re taken to a 360-camera tour of a dairy farm (at least, three very short video segments of one particular farm). You can click on various icons throughout the page to read short (very short) blurbs about the milking process. While this visual story-telling approach is in itself interesting, the sponsored content is obviously tailored to give an impression that dairy farms are clean, friendly, and innocuous environments. Some small, ethically minded dairy farms may indeed fit this description, at least to the extent possible when the intensive use of living creatures is involved.

But the typical modern American dairy farm does not fit this description in the least. Most of America’s milk is produced in largescale facilities where dairy cows are separated from their calves soon after giving birth and continually injected with hormones to keep them producing milk. They spend most of their time indoors or in crowded pens, are fed unnatural feed (lots of soy, corn, and canola instead of grass), and are sent to slaughter after approximately 4 years (the natural lifespan of a cow is 15-20 years or more). In addition, large dairy facilities can lead to local air and water quality issues due to excess manure and other waste. Then there’s the many allegations and documentation of brutal animal abuse in industrial dairies over the years (like this one, or this, and here’s another).

None of this is mentioned in the NatGeo post, of course. They only provide a few short sentences praising how well the cows are cared for (including how comfortable they are), how well they are fed (without explaining their feed is not what cows evolved to digest), and how streamlined the process is. #ThanksLandOLakes.

My point is not to point fingers at any particular dairy farmer. But the industry as a whole is problematic on many levels, and this is no secret. US Dairy sales are in decline, and the industry is scrambling to compete with the plethora of alternative ‘milks’ now on the market. Why couldn’t NatGeo discuss this challenge, and point to some of the innovative dairy farmers that are adopting meaningful sustainability and animal rights standards? My guess is because that wasn’t what Land O’Lakes paid for.

Can’t Pull the Wool Over Our Eyes

Ironically, NatGeo’s sponsored post seems to have backfired, at least initially. Roughly 95% of post comments were from angry or disappointed readers who couldn’t believe NatGeo would publish corporate agribusiness propaganda. Here’s just a spattering of typical responses:

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A few commenters did express support for farmers, but not a single comment last I checked supported either Land O’Lakes or the fact that this was sponsored content. Seeing this strong negative response, I have to wonder: what were NatGeo marketers thinking when they posted such controversial sponsored content? Do they just not care as long as they get funding from sponsors? Or do any clicks and comments, regardless of the reason or type of response, count as a win for NatGeo analytics? Did they just really misjudge how their target audience would respond?

I don’t have an answer to these questions. Perhaps some of you, savvy readers, know more about this than I do and have hypotheses or insights? The frustrating thing is that most large companies never seem to respond to commenters, either to answer their questions or challenge their negative responses, so we may never know what the NatGeo folks behind the magic curtain actually intended with this campaign. I’ve seen the same sort of audience backlash to posts from companies like Starbucks as well as media outlets like NowThis, and the same silence in response. Do these companies ever have to do damage control in the wake of such incidents?

There is no Santa Claus

After I saw this post, I actually ‘unliked’ the NatGeo page. I did so with a tinge of regret, thinking of the future wildlife and nature stories I’d miss. But it felt like the only thing I could do to show my disappointment in a company, a ‘brand’, I had put my trust in since childhood.

When the Murdoch Fox media empire bought out National Geographic’s magazine and TV network a few years back, NatGeo was transformed into a for-profit company. While this may have helped save an entity facing slacking magazine sales and a changing cable TV landscape, the reality is that the acquisition forever changed the ethics and culture of the company (side note: The National Geographic Society is itself still a non-profit entity; but the NatGeo magazine, TV channel, and other media are now owned by Fox).

Realizing that National Geographic is just another company with a bottom line was as sucky as learning that Santa Claus isn’t real. Maybe I was just naïve. But I don’t think I’m alone in my disillusionment. Many wildlife scientists, writers, videographers and photographers have dreamt for much of their lives of working for National Geographic—myself included. It was the ultimate goal, the standard with which we compared all other jobs—the equivalent for scientists of getting a paper published in Science or Nature.

Transparency: It Does a Body (and a Company) Good

It seems only natural that seeing corporate-sponsored content would leave a bitter taste in many of our mouths. I don’t think that National Geographic is evil because of its affiliations, or that the Society doesn’t serve a good purpose by providing stories about the planet and its wonders, and funding great scientific research around the world. No company, organization, or person can ever be completely ethically pure. To complicate things, ethics are an ever-evolving subject that are often very specific to the time and place within which they are embedded. However, certain ethical boundaries are fairly obvious based on public reaction when they are crossed.

NatGeo’s sponsored post certainly seemed to cross one such boundary, resulting in public backlash and perhaps even some very real (however small) consequences in the form of lost viewers and subscribers. While the growth of ‘native content’ is disconcerting, I find comfort in the fact that viewers aren’t so easily fooled. Nor are they afraid to raise their voices in protest when they feel integrity has been compromised or truths distorted. I can only hope that continued pushback by wary audiences will help guide corporate ethics toward greater transparency and responsibility.

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What do YOU think about organizations sharing sponsored content? What examples have you seen that have made you raise an eyebrow? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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A few bits of information about the dairy industry that National Geographic did not include in its 360 video exploration of a dairy farm.

The most AMAZING story you’ll ever read! (A.K.A., the concerning rise of Click-Baiting and sensational “science”)

www.cartoonsbyjim.com
http://www.cartoonsbyjim.com

Social media can be a catalyst for spreading awareness about scientific and environmental issues, and in some cases can help affect positive change. But for every link posted that actually leads to a valid, well-researched story, there are a dozen more that MIS-lead you to some nonsense article, or worse—a sensationalized, one-sided, often poorly-researched story thinly veiled as ‘scientific’.

Let me disclose my own perspective from the start: I trust the evidence showing that climate change is happening, and that CO2 and methane from human-caused activity is a huge contributor. I am skeptical that corporations generally have the best interests of society or the environment at heart, and I realize that government is not always transparent or just—regardless of which party is in control. However, I am also not a conspiracy theorist, and in fact believe that conspiracy theorists tend to draw attention away from some of the most pressing issues affecting the world.

While I know that human knowledge is still very limited, and our view of the universe is naturally incomplete, there are methods we can use to improve our understanding—and then of course there are methods some people use to obfuscate that understanding. As a trained scientist, I am wary of explanations that lack credible evidence (or use faulty evidence) to back them up. Each time we read a scientific story, we should be asking ourselves about the credibility of information we receive—what are the credentials and reputation of the source, what evidence does the source cite, and does the source consider multiple perspectives and valid references?

As a communicator, I am particularly sensitive to journalists, writers, or bloggers who display unacknowledged bias or inaccuracy in their reporting of scientific issues. I don’t claim to know everything, nor do I endorse any particular information source; but irresponsible scientific writing ends up burning more bridges between the public and science in a time when scientific understanding is more critical than ever.

Climate change denialism (like vaccination controversy) has been addressed effectively by hundreds of scientists and communicators, so I won’t spend time here discussing the ways that climate change science has been cherry-picked or misrepresented by people either not well-versed in science or actively trying to distort it. Instead, I’ll provide a few other examples of troublesome reporting.

Aedes albopictus, an invasive mosquito species  in Florida that can spread lethal diseases.
Aedes albopictus, an invasive mosquito species in Florida that can spread lethal diseases.

Frankensquito or Insect Savior?

A smaller—but no less controversial—story popping up in news media lately is the development and release of genetically modified mosquitos to help combat mosquito-borne diseases. I won’t go into the details about their development, here but you can read more about the technology by googling, or in the articles I link to below.

GMOs typically refer to modified crops like soybeans and corn, but more and more research labs are toying with genetically modified insects and animals. I am wary of genetically modified crops for a number of reasons—the unscrupulous purposes of their creation, their reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and their detrimental social-economic impacts to small farmers. However, it would be unfair, and extremely ideological, for me to render every single GMO as evil without considering multiple perspectives.

Even for those GMOs that I oppose, such as GM soy, I must acknowledge that we don’t fully know how harmful these crops will ultimately be to our bodies or the environment compared to conventional crops. GMOs developed by academic or independent institutions (as opposed to agro-corporations) may actually provide some human or environmental benefit that outweighs risks or harms.

So what about these genetically modified mosquitos? Depending on which media source you look to, the mosquitos are either dangerous mutants who will lead the apocalypse, or they are angelic saviors in the plight against deadly disease. Of course, neither of these depictions is completely accurate, but the concept that GM mosquitos are just one more, somewhat successful but limited attempt to control vector-borne disease is not a newsworthy headline.

The click-bait culture has fed into sensationalized media, enticing people to click on extreme headlines that never live up to their hype when you actually read the story. It still doesn’t keep people from clicking on the links, however. And while clicking is harmless, when links begin to spread from reader to reader via social media, a highly distorted viewpoint can reach epic proportions.

One such story from the site Collective Evolution talks about the potential release of GM mosquitos in Florida, arguing that these mosquitos may spread their genetically-modified DNA to humans, that their populations may eventually get out of control, and the diseases they carry are not even that dangerous or prevalent. All of these points are partially valid, but have been purposely slanted or stretched beyond scientific fact. The article does site some references, but many of them are from sources with well-known biases or controversies themselves.

On the other hand, NPR published an article about the mosquitos that projects a very benign, almost positive slant, providing arguments and facts not mentioned by Collective Evolution, but also not delving into much about the risks of GMOs. On the other extreme, an author from Discovery Magazine attempts to squash all fears about the mosquitos point by point, arguing that protests against their release are ignorant fear-mongering. Another pithy author took this approach to the issue in the Washington Post.

A recent article on the GM mosquitos in Time Magazine.
A recent article on the GM mosquitos in Time Magazine.

There are more than 50 Shades of Gray—metaphorically speaking

As with any issue where science meets society, there are many nuances to the GM mosquito story, only some of which are discussed in any one news article. This is not a clear black/white, good/bad issue. The decision to release these mosquitos or not is contingent on particular societal values at a given time.

Some things to consider: the mosquitos being targeted are not native to Florida, so eradicating them (or reducing their numbers) would not necessarily be a disruption to native fauna and flora. The diseases the invasive mosquitos carry, while not widespread in the U.S. at this time, are projected to increase as the climate continues to warm. The same mosquitos have been released in other cities around the world with great success, and no recorded harm, resulting in reduced rates of disease. The current method of controlling these mosquitos is with tons of pesticides—not exactly a healthy alternative. However, there have been many cases of biological releases gone wrong, so this is not a fail-safe procedure.

Would you rather be exposed to pesticides or take antibiotics rather than GM mosquitos? Do you fear GM technology more than tropical diseases? How you feel about these various trade-offs will color how you interpret the issue, and the media provides additional filters. My main point is just to be aware of your own biases as you react to any scientific story—while your viewpoint may remain the same, understanding how you construct your perspective is a valuable thought-experiment that can help you build tolerance and openness to other perspectives.

Our world is a mix of cultural relativism, objective external reality, and subjective reactions to that reality. Cultivating a greater awareness of what you read, and what you share with others, will help us as a society to expand our consciousness and be more thoughtful about how we co-exist in the world.

A message of Optimism on World Oceans Day

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Today is World Oceans Day—a day to recognize the life-giving resources the ocean provides, and a day for all ocean-related organizations to create a united front on social media to bring attention to ocean issues.

In my last post, I discussed my capricious relationship with social media and its ability to both connect us with pressing global issues and to distract us with fluff and humor. Nonetheless, a large portion of my job involves keeping track of and contributing to social media, and I recognize how useful these venues can be for sharing positive stories of change that may even ignite action, whether it be signing a petition or joining an awareness event.

This week, hundreds of organizations are contributing stories and posts to the web-o-sphere via the #OceanOptimism hashtag to spread messages of hope and solutions in the face of daunting environmental challenges. As I’ve written before, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with sadness, even defeatism, when you work in a field like environmental or social justice. There’s even a term for it: compassion fatigue, a condition recognized especially in nursing and disaster response circles where workers are confronted with too much trauma and suffering.

In the ocean conservation realm, a number of people and organizations have attempted to combat such emotional exhaustion by emphasizing solutions rather than simply bombarding the public with the problems we face. It’s all about re-framing, or re-branding as the case may be. One example: Mission Blue, the organization founded by famous oceanographer Sylvia Earle, has identified several ‘hope spots’ around the world’s oceans—regions of remarkable biodiversity that are deserving of special protection.

Map of Hope Spots identified by Mission Blue as key ocean regions deserving of special protection.
Map of Hope Spots identified by Mission Blue as key ocean regions deserving of special protection.

In light of the special attention the oceans are receiving today, I wanted to share some inspiration that has improved my outlook on the future, and hopefully will do so for you as well.

There are many stories of hope and positivity out there from scientists working at the front lines of conservation and management. This Huffpost article, written by Smithsonian National Museum scientist Nancy Knowlton, is a recent example of a newer approach highlighting success stories, like the improvement of fisheries management policy in the U.S., or increases in humpback whale and sea otter populations due to improved protection.

Finding political leaders who have the passion, let alone the capacity, to link human wellbeing with environmental protection is even more difficult than coming up with conservation success stories. Hence the recent news that Mauritius has sworn in its first female president is particularly inspiring—not just because President Ameenah Gurib-Fakim is a woman, which is notable enough—but because she is also a biologist. In a TED talk last year, Gurib-Fakim explained the scientific and social relevance of a number of threatened plants, arguing that the protection of nature’s biodiversity is, in effect, the protection of our own health, culture, and future. Now, as her nation’s president, she has the rare opportunity to combine an acute scientific understanding of nature with the political will to protect valuable natural resources.

The island nation of Mauritius lies within the biodiversity hotspot region of the Indian Ocean.
The island nation of Mauritius lies within the biodiversity hotspot region of the Indian Ocean.

It’s true that Muaritius is just one tiny island in a huge world of competing socio-economic and political challenges. But most societal changes start small, and overtime snowball until critical mass is achieved. I’m inspired by Gurib-Fakim’s dedication to her people and homeland. As she stated:

“Climate change is a big concern for us — it can be felt in terms of the seasons, and we’re seeing very strong, violent storms. A strong voice needs to be heard. Sustainable development has everything to do with our identity of being Mauritian and of being a biodiversity hotspot.”

It’s a tricky balance to honestly present the direness of society’s most pressing challenges while simultaneously trying to convince people that we are capable of handling them. Yet that’s the tale of humanity: one of extremes, of contradictions, and of overcoming seemingly impossible struggles. The way we perceive the world all depends on how we choose to frame challenges and solutions. If we choose optimism and positive action, our world will be defined by these constructs.

On this #WorldOceansDay, I for one choose #OceanOptimism.

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