The New York Times & Bees

dead bee in evening primrose October 2014
dead honey bee in evening primrose, October 2014

The First Rule About The Environment

The first rule about the environment is: you don’t talk about the environment. In 2013 when the New York Times closed its Environment desk (but maintained headings for Sports and Fashion) they sent a clear message about which topics are proper for public discourse. Environmental issues were literally taken off the menu.

Though the reporters were reassigned, the newspaper said it would continue to report on the state of our environment under the auspices of science. But appearance matters. Here’s why.

Herman and Chomsky’s analysis Manufacturing Consent introduced the idea that the New York Times is an important gatekeeper of information and propaganda. This situation holds true today. Many news outlets don’t bother with the expense of doing their own reporting; instead, they reprint New York Times articles in whole or part to fill out their content spaces. So what the New York Times says about a topic and how they do so has a tendency to set trends in thought.

After generating a profit, commercial news media have two functions in this society. The two functions can be contradictory which sometimes turns reporting the facts into a balancing act. The most important function of the news is to maintain public support for the status quo. Increasingly, news outlets employ diversion and distraction strategies to achieve that. However, news media do need to keep the elite informed when profit or influence might be at risk.

So what is the New York Times telling us about bee deaths?

On a whim I looked at the stories written about bees and compared them to what I’ve read elsewhere. An easy enough task: only eleven pieces were published by the New York Times this year — because of that first rule of the environment, I suppose.

Here’s what government, researchers and beekeepers have agreed on this year:

You might not know these facts if your only source of information was the New York Times. If you look closely, they do mention these things but only in a context that spins the reader away from the truth. Here’s a summary of content about bees from this year so far:

  • 4 pieces reported about bees in general (pheromones; social structure, waggle dance, water drinking)
  • 2 suggested colony collapse disorder might be caused by a virus.
  • 1 opinion piece discussed colony collapse disorder as having multiple causes.
  • 2 reports suggest colony collapse disorder is waning or has even disappeared.
  • 2 mention government assistance/initiatives to bolster bee populations.

If the New York Times was your only source of information you might think mass bee deaths were a thing of the past and unimportant. The nice science stories are there to entertain us. The stories about mass die offs being due to a virus and the opinion piece about multiple causes are there to protect the pesticide industry. The quibble about the terms colony collapse disorder vs mass bee deaths is meant to distract us — and may even offer reassurance to people worried about the issue.

The real news items are the very short mentions about government assistance. They tell us the problem is alarming enough that various industries (beekeeping and agriculture, for example) are asking for protection. As a side note, the call for research is an invitation for big universities and companies like Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer to earn some extra money/credibility on the side.

Why create the fiction that everything is mostly ok? I have some theories. I’d love to hear yours.

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27 thoughts on “The New York Times & Bees

  1. A bit off topic, but related: anyone reading the news (or lack of it) for the last few weeks might think that Ebola virus disease has really died down in Africa. Umm, no … but there are no new Americans sick or dead, and the election season has passed, so Ebola has been pushed off the main media stage.

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    1. Thanks for mentioning this. I think it is dead on target. I think it is important to pay attention to how news media portion out their story space. You have brought out another example of how news tends to reflect the interests of the one percent. I doubt it will reported in any depth again unless it happens to threaten profits being made in Africa.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is an excellent post. You have articulated the problem of spin very well. Think how many ways it might make the world better if each of us found a way to grow fruit or nut trees or perennial vegetables without pesticides. It should be obvious that problem insects simply evolve to match the chemical arms race while beneficial insects (and amphibians, also disappearing) die by the wayside. I am beginning to hear about new forms of co-ops, where neighborhoods get together to grow a variety of foods and then can sell them at a store. Less abuse of water ( as in California) less fuel to transport food, and no pesticides.
    I think perhaps the problem is that when only the problems are presented, people tune out because they believe it is insurmountable.

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    1. We have already passed the point where pesticides & herbicides add value to agriculture. They are killing soil and productivity and well everything else slowly but surely. The locally grown food movement is definitely the way to go. I think you are right: we need to rethink and redefine the problem.

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  3. I enjoyed this article and the comments from other readers. I’m living outside the US and gather “news” through various mediums and outlets. What I’ve noticed more and more is a great disconnect between what you can learn about an issue though ‘alternative’ news sources and the mainstream media. Thank you for demonstrating this in your comparison of news stories.
    It’s deplorable that cookie cutter news reportage is happening – taking something whole stock from NYT and running with it in other cities. That’s probably the 1st problem, but not the greatest. The greater problem is that journalistic reportage was once considered by many to be THE bastion of true news. Media outlets are now maintained and operated by a select few – who control the voice and the message of print and visual news content. You will only hear or read what they want you to know. If news runs counter to their objectives (political/economic) I believe they stifle access and outright skew information as a means to deflect further analysis which could be damning – OMG the real truth might get out!
    “Alternative” is a label/term to immediately discredit something for being something other than the norm. Anything which is different from the norm is to suspect. Even though serious reporting about global and environmental issues continues in earnest, but is being provided to citizens as “Alternative” news it has been branded as “less worthy” and thus, suspect. Many people who do care about bee deaths and other issues are confused by the mixed messages. The panic and cause for alarm vs the pacifying explanations of trusted news sources like NYT. And to bring up a final aspect; For many people…I seriously say this because it’s true… they will believe anything they are told, believe anything they read and will follow the way they’ve been coached to follow – directly in line with the popular mainstream media message regardless of what they can see and hear happening all around them.
    Thank you for letting me offer my comments on your article. I believe we face a significant problem relying on news as our only source of information. I would be saddened too by discovering dead bees in my garden or six-legged frogs…none of which would really be so unexpected in these days and times we now live. I can be thankful that the EU has some of the most stringent environmental regulations anywhere, but I can still buy Roundup at the garden center…so how safe is anyone really…

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    1. Thanks so much for contributing your thoughtful comments. I think your point about that disconnect is so important. And the division does seem to be widening. It is a travesty that a person needs to dig and search to learn more about the environmental catastrophes around us — particularly when some are urgent issues that actually could be fixed.

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  4. I think the scary thing is that people have been injecting opinion into science and the press, in general, seems to be reinforcing that. Some things are not well understood, but good reporting would tell us that and tell us what (if anything) is being done. Who is working on this, what are the theories and why should we care. Instead, we read about various opinions. There is a difference between a theory and an opinion. People work to disprove a theory but they work to reinforce their own opinion. Thanks for this post.

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    1. Thanks, Dan. I agree. What is holding these reporters back from asking the difficult and uncomfortable questions? The scary thing for me is that these reporters pretend to a controversy that doesn’t exist just so they don’t offend certan industries.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I really dislike when “news” sources report speculation, opinion and rumor as if it were news. Where do the facts hide these days? How can we even find them? As you recount here, the facts, they are MIA.

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    1. The facts are out there in the alternative press but most people don’t have the time to seek it out. People already overwhelmingly support the idea of environmental candidates & taking better care of our world (across all political parties surprisingly). Imagine what could happen if everyone knew just how bad the situation is?

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  6. Hi Debra. Excellent post. Can I reblog it on a pollinator blog I share with a friend. What you talk about here is as relevant to us here in Europe as it it there is the US. With thanks

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  7. I missed this post. I have to agree with Texas Deb. I find that even “good” news sources frustratingly drop the ball on so many things. I find myself yelling at the radio a great deal and that doesn’t really help anything. I have found that people are interested in my bees and why I’m keeping them. I gently (I wish I didn’t have to do it gently) talk about chemical use, lost of habitat, turf that takes up valuable habitat space and the simple things each of us can do. I have, on occasion talked about the role that large companies play with environmental damage, but that becomes….I don’t know, esoteric. Hard to fathom. I think most people feel like there’s not much an individual can do. I know I feel that was. A lot. Thanks for this post.

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    1. Thanks, Tina. I wrote this because this weekend I found some dead bees and I just felt heartbroken. I imagined this particular bee feeling sick and then leaving the safety of its home to die alone because it was afraid of infecting the colony. I am angry this issue is being swept under the carpet. The NYT published 11 pieces about bees — not one of which addressed the problem while overseas, the Guardian published 5o+ full articles in the same time period — not to mention the many pieces in their blogs. Thank you for sparking conversation and getting people to think. It really matters.

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  8. This is such an important blog post, newspapers should be held accountable and its appalling that they have removed its Environment desk. I appreciate the diligence and time you have spent researching this. Sadly money as usual is the root cause.

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  9. I don’t have any theories, but it has been my general impression the NYT has carefully moved towards the middle when it comes to reporting anything that might attract controversy (with a few exceptions). I don’t know if advertising dollars are driving that drift? With so many specialized sources of information these days, I’d be surprised if anybody with a real interest in ANY topic would simply check the NYT for articles and leave it at that however. Do you think many people simply read one newspaper and let that serve as their source of all information?

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    1. I think that even when people read multiple sources it comes to the same thing if those sources are just parroting each other.

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