On the morning of March 31st, a breakfast was laid out at the National Press Club in Washington for a blue-ribbon panel of reporters, scientists and business executives to discuss problems in news coverage of science.
The half-day conference, titled “Lost in Translation: Is Science Explained Fairly in the Media?” was the product of a partnership between Scientific American magazine and two commercial sponsors: Johnson & Johnson, and GMO Answers, a public-information agency funded by members of The Council for Biotechnology Information, which includes the industry powerhouses BASF, Bayer, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Syngenta, and Monsanto.
The conference was an example of what is now a widespread and growing practice in the publishing industry: the use of “branded partnerships” to extended publishers’ reach and boost their income. While these arrangements might generate revenue, they also raise important questions about journalistic credibility. After all, how can news outlets like Scientific American, a respected — even revered — source of science news, maintain the appearance of impartiality while accepting checks from companies they cover? And should respected journalists lend their names and reputations to such conferences by participating on the panels?
Nobody seems to be waiting to find out. The number of these alliances has grown spectacularly. Each year, AdAge magazine puts together a list of best partnerships. Its 2014 list was assembled by combing through 1,500 pieces of branded content. For the 2015 list, the number of candidates grew to 7,000. The list included arrangements between The Wall Street Journal and Netflix; The New York Times and GE; Wired and Nokia; and Thrillist and Tabasco, who partnered on the Boldest Grilling Guide.
The Scientific American conference listed prominent scientists from a variety of fields as featured speakers. They included Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; the noted climate scientist Dr. James E. Hansen of Columbia University; and Dr. Donna Nelson, president of the American Chemical Society and science advisor to the television show “Breaking Bad.”
Similarly distinguished journalists were also listed as panelists, including Keith Kloor, an instructor at New York University and a frequent media critic, and Julia Belluz, a senior health correspondent at Vox.com.
The participation of these speakers drew about 100 journalists to the conference — and that’s not all that surprising. Who wouldn’t want some time with Fauci, a luminary in the field of public health? Or Hansen, one of the first, most visible, and most newsworthy critics of U.S. climate-change policy? And any reporters who were reluctant to attend an industry-sponsored conference might have been reassured by the participation of Kloor and Belluz.
Jeremy Abbate, Scientific American’s vice president and publisher, made clear in his introductory remarks at the conference that he did not believe the conference rubbed any of the gloss off of Scientific American’s reputation. In part, he said, that was because the event was organized by Scientific American’s “Custom Media” division — “a distinct entity from Scientific American’s editorial board,” Abbate noted.
Just how distinct the entities are, however, is unclear. The conference was moderated by John Rennie, a long-time former editor-in-chief of Scientific American. Rennie is no longer on the magazine’s editorial board, so Abbate was technically correct, but Rennie’s participation clearly tied the conference to the magazine.
Kloor said it was Rennie’s involvement that had induced him to join the panel. “I had to be reassured that SciAm was in the driver’s seat, not the corporate sponsor,” Kloor wrote in a blog post entitled “Lost in Translation: The Industry Taint.”
“I trust and respect John,” Kloor continued. “I know he’s not going to hitch himself to something that might undermine his or SciAm’s journalistic integrity. So I got on board.”
Kloor said he was not paid to talk, nor did he accept any money to cover his expenses.
Belluz said she and her editors likewise thought deeply about the conference before she decided to jump in, and that she accepted no money from the sponsors, or from Scientific American. “The translation of science is an important issue that I’ve written about extensively, so I thought this was a unique opportunity to share ideas in a public forum, at the National Press Club, about an issue I care a lot about and cover,” she said in an email message. And “SciAm assured me that the sponsors had no say in what we were going to talk about, and that was my impression from the day’s events.”
Additionally, she said, “there were numerous sponsors for this event, which made it somewhat less problematic than, for example, if it was a panel about whether GMOs are safe and it was sponsored only by GMO Answers.”
And yet for all of this, Abbate’s opening remarks suggested that the sponsors had more influence on the conference than it might have initially appeared — including influence on who would be on the panel and what would be discussed.
“As a custom event, we do take suggestions and agenda inputs from our sponsors early on, which we can accept or reject,” he said. “But I want to make it clear that like everything else Scientific American does, we exercise our sole discretion in setting this agenda and executing this forum.”
I asked Abbate in an email about possible conflicts of interest in this kind of arrangement. “Like network news or large city dailies, we have an obligation to report information valuable to our readers,” Abbate told me in an email. “In the case of custom media, the idea is to develop media that can serve the sponsoring partners and the consumers of the project.”
That all sounds evenhanded and transparent, but the question remains: If the event must serve, in part, the needs and desires of its industry sponsors, just how independent is Scientific American’s discretion in setting the agenda, as Abbate put it? In that sense, the separation between the sponsors and the consumers is not nearly as ironclad as Abbate suggests.
Gretchen Goldman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who attended the event, noted afterwards that such questions were inevitable, and that they partly subverted the conference’s aims. In a blog post titled “The Trouble with Science Funding,” Goldman noted that rather than focusing on the conference’s enlightening discussions, “the online conversation instead turned to the ‘industry taint’ of the event.”
“If the goal of the event was to have an honest conversation on the challenges of portraying scientific topics in the media (and we might speculate on whether or not that was the goal),” Goldman continued, “was the added funding from GMO Answers and Johnson & Johnson worth it?”
Not all reporters shared these concerns. Marc Gunther, a former Fortune reporter who now covers the social and environmental impact of business at a blog called NonprofitChronicles.com, said he often participates in such conferences. “As a freelancer, I like to get paid for my time and effort,” he told me in an email. “I don’t like going to events and being the only person in the room who isn’t getting paid.”
He said he discloses all of this on his website and to editors when it’s relevant.
But it’s worth noting that Scientific American’s custom media division has done more than simply partner on conferences. It boasts of creating “multiple platforms to help Celgene showcase its leadership in cancer innovation.” It reviewed the communications of Caterpillar, the global manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, with its dealers, and “assisted them in revamping their overall strategy.” And it says it has partnered with the Biotechnology Industry Association on various projects since 2009.
These are not casual ties — though as Kloor and Belluz point out, not all partnerships are created equal. Not every panel is moderated by somebody with the sterling credentials of John Rennie. And often the sponsor’s commercial interest is more closely attached to the subject of the conference than it was in this case. Abbate also noted that Scientific American had partnered on conferences with critics of industry, and with public-interest groups. “One of our partners for a global health project was the Gates Foundation,” Abbate said. “We have also worked with the Carter Center. It is definitely not just industry.”
Still, it’s the industry partnerships that will always raise eyebrows — and they are unlikely to go away. The benefits for publishers are simply too big too ignore.
In her farewell column earlier this week, Margaret Sullivan, the departing public editor at The New York Times, expressed concern about new advertising models and partnerships with business at the newspaper.
“It’s critical that the paper makes sure the news that readers see is driven by the judgment of editors concerned about journalism, not business-driven formulas that may only reinforce prejudices,” she wrote. “This is one of the big questions for the immediate future, one that must be grappled with.”
All journalists ought to hope that the Times — along with Scientific American and the growing number of other news organizations seeking revenue through a variety of corporate partnerships — begin that grappling soon.