The following guest post is by Earle Holland, a retired vice president for research communications at Ohio State University and now a regular contributor to HealthNewsReview.org.
A colleague pointed me to an announcement that the New York Times was offering guided tours of CERN, the world-renowned European physics laboratory. Surprisingly, the announcement said that the tour (a “journey” according to the Times’ promotional copy) would be led by Times science reporter Dennis Overbye. Overbye is arguably one of the best science writers in the business and perhaps the best at explaining the esoteric intricacies of particle physics.
The problem lies with the fact that as a reporter, Overbye regularly covers CERN. It’s a major part of his beat. Traditionally, there has been a firewall between organizations and the reporters who cover them, a separation that provides at the least the impression of objectivity, if not the real thing. This new deal seemed to ignore that arrangement, and therefore expected safeguards.
The Times has what it calls a public editor, Margaret Sullivan, who serves as a kind of internal watchdog over what the Times covers — an ombudsman of sorts who responds to questions and issues from the public. My colleague wrote to her and asked, “Doesn’t this create an odd set of optics that your principal beat reporter also serves as your paid tour guide to the people and facilities he covers?”
Sullivan responded to the question in an email: “I have spoken with Mr. Overbye and two Times editors, including the standards editor. I don’t think there is reason for concern here about conflict of interest.” She also quoted Overbye’s response that he saw this as an extension of his normal coverage, like giving a speech or writing a book.
Sullivan wrote a column shortly afterwards describing a new initiative at the Times to raise revenue by hosting conferences that used Times’ staffers on major issues or interests. She wrote:
“This year, the company is putting on three conferences in the United States and five in other countries, mostly in Europe. (Abroad, they are: Art for Tomorrow in Qatar; Athens Democracy Forum; Oil and Money in London; International Luxury Conference in Paris; Energy for Tomorrow in Paris. And three are in New York: Cities for Tomorrow; Schools for Tomorrow; and Food for Tomorrow.) As part of the conferences, Times journalists do live interviews or serve as moderators on panels. “
Granted, the newspaper business has been struggling for years, trying to regain what for decades was a lucrative profit margin for its investors. The advent of the Internet, and the accompanying shift in advertising revenues, has devastated the industry, and media companies are frantically looking for new revenue streams. These conferences, and presumably tours like that of CERN, are efforts at bringing in more bucks.
The walls separating the news-gathering from the business side of many media companies have been eroding faster than their revenue streams. It’s commonplace for local television stations to have sweetheart deals with nearby medical centers, guaranteeing positive coverage of medical advances at the centers in exchange for large sums of money. And local newspapers regularly partner with local businesses, including hospitals, usually for some kind of fee. Whether this affects the quality of their news coverage is an open question, as far as the public is concerned.
But when it comes to medicine and health, such “partnerships” can pose serious problems. I emailed Sullivan asking if, like the Overbye and CERN personalized tour, would “Gina Kolata or Larry Altman (two of the Times’ medical/health/science writers) offer tours of Sloan-Kettering, or Denise Grady (another Times’ medical writer) offer tours of Johns Hopkins, Mayo Clinic or even the CDC?”
Joumana Khatib, writing for the Times’ Office of the Public Editor, responded:
“Thank you for taking the time to write. You pose interesting questions here, and our office will certainly keep them in mind.”
That’s hardly the kind of response one expects if they seriously worry about such potential conflicts.
Clearly, a Times partnership with a medical center would constitute a more problematic conflict than the Overbye/CERN relationship. But the precedent is nonetheless troubling — as is the fact that the Times seems to be unwilling to declare this area off-limits to these revenue-seeking efforts.
The public trust is a fragile thing and extremely difficult to maintain. I believe that stories about medicine and health more closely affect people and their families than any other kind of journalism, and the obligation that media companies and their staffers have to maintain that trust is paramount. Partnerships and programs such as these may be truly innocent, but readers should trust their instincts when such arrangements seem to suggest conflicts.