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January 16, 2019

New Monsanto documents expose cozy connection to Reuters reporter

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By Carey Gillam 

(Update April 25, 2019) 

We knew from previously released documents that Reuters reporter Kate Kelland was a key connection for Monsanto in its endeavor to undermine and discredit the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) scientists who classified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen in 2015. Now we have additional evidence of the coziness of the connection.

Not only did Kelland write a 2017 story that Monsanto asked her to write in exactly the way Monsanto executive Sam Murphey asked her to write it, (without disclosing to readers that Monsanto was the source,) but now we see evidence that a draft of a separate story Kelland did about glyphosate  was delivered to Monsanto  before it was published, a practice typically frowned on by news outlets.

The emails shows the story written by Kelland was emailed before it was published to  Murphey with the subject line “My draft, Confidential.”

The story, headlined “New study on Monsanto weed killer to feed into crucial EU vote,” was about preliminary findings of an unpublished study by an Italian scientist showing that experimental rats exposed to glyphosate at levels equivalent to those allowed in humans showed no initial adverse reaction. The final version was published on April 13, 2017.

And another newly released email details how Monsanto’s fingerprints were on at least two other Kelland stories. The March 1, 2016 email speaks of the involvement of Monsanto’s “Red Flag” campaign  in an already published Reuters story that was critical of  IARC and the desire to influence a second similar story Reuters was planning.  Red Flag is a Dublin-based PR and lobbying firm that works to defend glyphosate safety and promote pro-glyphosate messaging via third parties such as farmer groups. According to the partly redacted email, “following engagement by Red Flag a number of months ago, the first piece was quite critical of IARC.”  The email goes on: “You may also be aware that Red Flag is in touch with Reuters regarding the second report in the series…”

A little over a month later, Reuters published Kelland’s story headlined “Special Report: How the World Health Organization’s cancer agency confuses consumers.” 

Those revelations follow the disclosure earlier this year of email correspondence detailing how Kelland helped Monsanto drive a false narrative about cancer scientist Aaron Blair in his role as head of the IARC working group that classified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen.  Internal Monsanto correspondence dated April 27, 2017 shows that Monsanto executive Sam Murphey sent the company’s desired narrative to Kelland with a slide deck of talking points and portions of the Blair deposition that was not filed in court. 

On June 14, 2017, Kelland authored a controversial story based on what she said were “court documents,” that in reality were documents fed to her by Murphey. Because the documents Kelland cited were not really filed in court they were not publicly available for easy fact-checking by readers. By  falsely attributing the information as based on court documents she avoided disclosing Monsanto’s role in driving the story.

When the story came out, it portrayed Blair as hiding “important information”that found no links between glyphosate and cancer from IARC. Kelland wrote that a deposition showed that Blair “said the data would have altered IARC’s analysis” even though a review of the actual deposition shows that Blair did not say that.

Kelland provided no link to the documents she cited, making it impossible for readers to see for themselves how far she veered from accuracy.

The story was picked up by media outlets around the world, and promoted by Monsanto and chemical industry allies. Google advertisements were even purchased promoting the story. This story was also used by Monsanto to attack IARC on multiple fronts, including an effort by Monsanto to get Congress to strip funding from IARC.

There is nothing inherently wrong in receiving story suggestions that benefit companies from the companies themselves. It happens all the time. But reporters must be diligent in presenting facts, not corporate propaganda.

Reuters editor Mike Williams has defended Kelland’s work and declined to issue a clarification or correction on the Aaron Blair piece. He said “It was a great piece, and I stand by it fully.”

Reuters “ethics editor” Alix Freedman also supports Kelland’s Blair story, despite the evidence of Monsanto’s involvement and the lack of disclosure of that involvement to readers. “We are proud of it and stand behind it,” Freedman said in an email.

On a personal note, I spent 17 years as a reporter at Reuters covering Monsanto and I am horrified at this violation of journalistic standards. It is particularly noteworthy that Alix Freedman is the same person who told me I was not allowed to write about many independent scientific studies of Monsanto’s glyphosate that were showing harmful impacts .

At the very least, Kelland should have been honest with readers and acknowledged that Monsanto was her source – on that story, and apparently many others. Reuters owes the world – and IARC – an apology.

For more background on this topic, see this article.