Saturday, November 6, 2010

New funders for science journalism: Is transparency enough?

By Jim Downing

A growing share of science news – particularly online – is produced with funding from foundations, industry and government. For science journalism, this reality raises a bundle of ethical questions: How much disclosure is enough? Is it possible to have a meaningful editorial “firewall” at an organization that gets all its money from a single funder? And are these new content sources contributing to the decline of in-house coverage of science at old-line media organizations?

Here’s a list from Robin Lloyd, the moderator of this afternoon’s “Partners and ethics in the new media era” session, of some of the most prominent examples of this trend, along with news coverage, and links to ethics policies.

Today’s panelists are playing central roles the evolution of this new tier of science writing. And it’s clear that there are still many open questions. Telling readers who paid for a story to be written is a good start. But things quickly get complicated.

Some highlights:

When a content provider has only one funder (as opposed to a the old model of a pool of advertisers), there’s more pressure on publisher-editor firewalls. On WebMD, noted Karl Bates, Duke University director of research communications, a sponsor such as a pharmaceutical company can fund the coverage of a particular topic – including a topic that is directly relevant to one of its products. Compare that with the old newspaper model, Bates said: “When we ran a tire company ad on page 2 of the paper, we wrote about a lot more than just tires.”

On the other hand, said Michael Lemonick, a longtime Time magazine reporter who is now a senior writer at Climate Central, the firewalls at legacy publications aren’t what they used to be either. He gave the example of how Time’s publisher pushed for more stories on addiction to please a pharma advertiser.

Peggy Girshman, executive editor at Kaiser Health News, described the variety of disclosure/transparency relationships KHN has with news sites that publish its stories. For stories that run in USA Today, for instance, KHN can’t quote anyone from the Kaiser Family Foundation, which means that a key voice on health issues gets cut out of the piece. Other partners, like the Washington Post, don’t have that same restriction. And there’s little consistency about what sites tell readers about KHN.

More broadly, it’s unclear whether the proliferation of free, donor-funded science content is helping to speed the decline of in-house coverage of science at magazines and newspapers. Girshman said this issue gives her pause; Lemonick was skeptical: “I don't think that if we don't give them content, they'd go find a reporter.”

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