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Journalists as tour guides at the institutions they cover: a troubling NY Times precedent for the future of health news

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.

Dennis Overbye at CERN

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.

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Comments (3)

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Laurence Alter

August 24, 2015 at 6:51 am

Dear Gary and/or Editorial Staff:
Thank you for providing an important subject and the inevitable ‘gray area’ of complex relationships (editorial writing & financial benefits). However, you have not made it clear if those organizations are profit-making; maybe I’m naive and lack common knowledge, but I don’t KNOW this scientific organization called “CERN” [which you failed to spell out] is non-profit or not.
((Gary, feel free to ask your medical science students for its complete name – an experimental experience for you. I’ll guess over HALF can’t name it.))
Perhaps your news-writing is to blame: use of abbreviations leaves the lay reader in confusion and so it is not self-evident the nature of the organization
So, in a sense, your profession is to blame – not entirely, but noticeably.
Also, in your sixth-to-last paragraph’s LAST line, you class the CDC [abbreviated, as is your style and custom] with Johns Hopkins [also abbreviated, par for the course, of course] when the Center for Disease Control [properly and helpfully and non-confusingly spelled out] is a governmental organization and public, UNlike Johns Hopkins. If I’m in error regarding the Center for Disease Control – properly spelled out – and its status as non-profit, then you people, as news-writers and news editors and news commentators, should make it clear. Without shortened language, a.k.a., abbreviations [yes, “a.k.a.” is an abbreviation; did you catch that on your own?], you have made yourselves (more) understood.
Hardly understood,
Laurence Alter

    Gary Schwitzer

    August 24, 2015 at 8:14 am

    CDC is not an abbreviation for Center for Disease Control, as you state.

    It is short for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    CERN can be found in a 2-second web search: European Organization for Nuclear Research – or the Conseil European pour la Recherché Nucleaire or Centre Européen de Recherches Nucléaires.

Earle Holland

August 24, 2015 at 6:29 pm

Laurence:
Thanks to Gary for responding but since I authored this posting, I should take the blame for the errors you point to. And yes, you are right that acronyms not widely recognized should usually be defined. But in fact, CERN is explained as “the world-renowned European physics laboratory” immediately after the use of the acronym. And since only a fraction of readers could decipher the actual name, in French, Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, we figured that would serve readers better.
As Gary stated, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention still goes by the abbreviation “CDC.” It’s hard to imagine many readers of health and medical information being unaware that this is the organization we were referring to. Even their logo is “CDC.”
And lastly, it matters little whether the organizations we cited as examples are public or private, non-profit or otherwise — our concerns remain the same. Reporters who regularly cover news emanating from these entities should not be involved in partnerships that place their objectivity in question.
I hope this clarifies matters.
Earle Holland