Poynter Institute ethics policy revised following our criticism

Gary Schwitzer is founder and publisher of HealthNewsReview.org.  He resigned his position as head of the CNN Medical News unit in 1990, in part, because of his perceptions of conflicts of interest in the network’s drug company sponsorship.  He taught media ethics at the University of Minnesota for 9 years, and was chosen as a Poynter Ethics Fellow in 2008-9. He tweets as @garyschwitzer, or, using the project handle of @HealthNewsRevu.

A leading journalism training organization, the Poynter Institute, has revised its ethics policy following constructive criticism by HealthNewsReview.org last month.

That criticism was spawned by Poynter’s announcement of two science journalism workshops, “SciFacts: Fighting Misinformation & Reporting Truthfully on the Science Beat,” sponsored by the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility (FAAR), a group created and funded by the distilling industry. The CEO of that alcohol industry foundation had a spot on the agenda of the Poynter event in Florida in June, and spoke to the journalists who could attend the workshop for free because of FAAR support.

I found many ready critics of this arrangement and quoted three:  longtime journalist Shannon Brownlee, MSc, now Vice President of the Lown Institute; and two New York University professors – bioethicist Arthur Caplan, PhD, and Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health.

In a column on the Poynter Institute website announcing the revised ethics policy, Poynter Vice President Kelly McBride acknowledges that criticism, but calls it unfair.  We stand by every single point of that criticism. We don’t think that it is unfair to alert American news consumers and health care consumers that an increasing number of health-related news stories are delivered to them by an increasing number of journalists attending an increasing number of industry-funded journalism training workshops. We realize that Poynter doesn’t specialize in health care journalism as we do, and, therefore, may not be aware of the growing concerns about conflicts of interest not only in health care research and medical practice, but also in the business of health care journalism.

Nonetheless, the revised Poynter ethics policy is a very thoughtful document. I applaud its detailed discussion of the rationale, the processes to be employed, details on privileges to be granted funders, and a list of questions which Poynter’s president or VP will ask in certain situations about proposed funding arrangements. I don’t fully agree with all of those details, particularly the privileges to be granted funders.  But I can’t think of an ethics policy that I’ve seen that offers this level of detail, and that, further, invites emails with concerns or questions at the end. The document is intended to be Poynter’s own institutional policy, not one that makes recommendations to journalists or news organizations. But because the policy reflects values “rooted in Poynter’s dedication to teaching and inspiring journalists and media leaders,”  I see an opportunity for the policy to take a further step to teach and inspire.  I wish that it stated something such as, “We believe that journalists and journalism organizations should not accept funding from individuals or organizations whom they report on.”

Thanks to Poynter’s McBride and Alexios Mantzarlis, who leads the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, for sending me the document to review prior to publication.  They also invited me to speak about “How conflicts of interest get in the way of truth & what we should do about it” at the next SciFi workshop in Washington, DC in October.

Poynter becomes the second organization to reflect on, and act in response to, our criticism about conflicts of interest.  Last year, the University of Maryland conducted an internal investigation in response to our criticism of a news release making claims about a university-industry partnership exploring chocolate milk for young athletes’ concussions.  The university posted the investigation team’s 23 separate findings and 15 recommendations.

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