Health News Review

On the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, Paul Raeburn writes, “Beware the National Press Foundation’s ‘Tips for High-Fidelity Science Reporting’ webinar.

The announcement by the National Press Foundation states:

Any journalist who wants to improve her or his work on scientific topics will benefit from this webinar. It will highlight common challenges in communicating science and offer specific tips to enhance the fidelity and richness of scientific reporting. We’ll talk about:

- Key questions to ask about every new scientific report
- What details should be communicated from a study to accurately convey the results;
- The importance of communicating uncertainty.

Science journalism is an essential part of helping the public “get” the scientific knowledge we all need to make decisions in an increasingly complex world. We’ll be on the record, and as always, we’ll take your questions.

Speakers

David Allison Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Public Health, University of Alabama at Birmingham

Andrew W. Brown, Ph.D., Nutrition and Obesity Research Center & Office of Energetics, University of Alabama at Birmingham

And then the disclosure:

Raeburn says that’s only half-disclosure.  He writes:

The first speaker listed here is David Allison of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In 2011, ABC News  noted that Allison has extensive ties to Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and the American Beverage Association. According to ABC, he was paid by the New York Restaurant Association to file an affidavit against New York City and a law requiring restaurants to post calorie counts on menus.

“His actions outraged many of his colleagues, and Allison eventually submitted his resignation as the incoming president of the Obesity Society over the controversy that followed the filing of his affidavit, which he signed as president-elect of the Obesity Society,” ABC reported.

So much for the Press Foundation’s first speaker.

The second, Andrew W. Brown–also, oddly, of the University of Alabama at Birmingham–published a paper in April, 2013 in which he argued that all kinds of popular public-health interventions to prevent obesity can have unintended consequences, making the obesity problem worse. He argues against such things as taxing sugar-sweetened beverages and labeling calories on vending machine drinks.

He might be right about those things, but we should be suspicious. If you scroll all the way down, you come to this: “Dr. Brown receives grant support from the Coca-Cola Foundation through his institution.”

Two guys who are supported by Coke are going to speak at a webinar underwritten by Coke about how you can do a better job with science reporting?

Obviously, the answer is, say nice things about Coke. Think twice about criticizing sugary drinks. Raise doubts about almost any public-health intervention intended to fight obesity–especially if it means cutting back on Coke.

So here’s the thing: Coke is entitled to hold any kind of webinar it wants. It can invite science reporters to Atlanta for a free Coke weekend, with free passes to the World of Coca-Cola. This is free enterprise. Free speech. The American way.

But why on earth is a journalism organization allowing Coke to use its cred to legitimize this webinar? This is a scandal.

And, sadly, it’s not the first time the National Press Foundation has allowed a single corporation to, like a virus, invade its boundaries and take command of its journalistic DNA.

No, it’s not a first for the National Press Foundation.  I’ve been writing about them taking money from Pfizer for 4 years.  See past posts:

There are other ways – far better ways – to educate journalists on the themes that this webinar promises to cover.  And with no conflicts of interest attached.

Anyone who has studied ethics knows that if there’s even a perception of a conflict of interest, and if there’s another option available, it should be pursued.

We’re still waiting, National Press Foundation.

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Comments

Susan Jenkins posted on March 10, 2014 at 4:19 pm

I’ve been a medical/health writer and editor for many years, and I have to say that, unfortunately, I’m not surprised by this story. The lines between editorial and advertorial have been blurry for years. All I can suggest is diligence–on the part of writers, editors, and readers. Thank you for your insightful column.

JeanneFromClearhealthcosts posted on March 10, 2014 at 10:23 pm

Yikes. This is a marketplace where nothing is as it seems. Thanks to you, Gary, for paying attention and keeping it honest.