Should Johnson & Johnson Be Helping to Fund the World Conference of Science Journalists?

This October, 1,200 science journalists will gather in San Francisco for the World Conference of Science Journalists. Their experience there will be underwritten by foundations, universities, media organizations — and pharmaceutical companies.

The Science Press Under the Microscope.

The WCSJ’s lead sponsor this year is pharma giant Johnson & Johnson, which contributed at least $400,000 to the conference. AstraZeneca, Bayer, and Sanofi each gave another $50,000. Taken together, that equals more than 20 percent of the event’s projected $2.5 million budget. The consumer genomics and biotechnology company, 23andMe, chipped in $50,000.

As a general rule, journalists aren’t allowed to take money from the people, organizations, and companies that they cover. But as journalism organizations rely more and more on corporate sponsors to fill out their conference budgets, they are opening up new avenues for companies to potentially influence science journalists, however indirectly. And along the way, they’ve created new pitfalls for science writers trying to avoid conflicts of interest.

Those dilemmas are exemplified by this year’s WCSJ, which has relied on Johnson & Johnson funding almost from the start. The annual conference rotates from country to country, and when two American organizations, the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and the National Association of Science Writers, decided in 2014 that they wanted to make a bid to host the 2017 event, they knew they’d need to show that they could cover the sizable price tag. So CASW approached Johnson & Johnson.

Rosalind Reid, the executive director of CASW, told Undark that the organization has had a “very long relationship” with the company. “For various reasons, they have developed similar relationships with lots of different science journalist organizations, and it was an obvious relationship to bring forward in support of the conference,” Reid said. “They’re very respectful of the guidelines of science writing organizations, so it’s not challenging to come up with a no strings, arms-length arrangement with them.”

Sponsors are listed clearly and prominently on the conference website. And Reid stressed that, with the exception of separate, sponsored side events, none of the WCSJ’s corporate underwriters have any say in the conference’s programming.

Seema Kumar, the Johnson & Johnson representative responsible for the company’s sponsorship of the WCSJ and other science journalism events, said that she had not offered any specific requests or opinions about the conference’s content. She also rejected any suggestion that Johnson & Johnson stood to gain, at least directly, from its involvement in the conference. “To be honest with you, there is no real quote-unquote benefit other than it being corporate social responsibility,” Kumar told Undark.

Deborah Blum, the publisher of Undark and the program chair for the skills and training section of the conference, said that after the Johnson & Johnson grant had been announced, she was asked by the company to join Kumar and other J&J representatives for a sit-down meeting where possible speakers and topics for the event — including the importance of pharmaceutical research — were suggested. “We didn’t use any of that in my part of the program,” Blum said, “and I was not approached or pressured on that topic again.”

The company is hosting a sponsored field trip on the last day of the conference to its own healthcare incubator known as JLABS, and Kumar and a consultant do stay in regular contact with other conference organizers. Kumar also said that Johnson & Johnson did respond to general calls made by the event’s organizers for San Francisco area resources and scientist speakers, though she added that none of the company’s suggestions ended up being selected.

Still, some journalists might have reason to be concerned about particular WCSJ sponsors, including Johnson & Johnson. The company is currently being sued by multiple states, which allege that Johnson & Johnson and a subsidiary pursued marketing and sales strategies that drove the opioid epidemic. And 23andMe has sparked controversy for flouting FDA regulations and challenging consumer privacy standards.

The Association of Healthcare Journalists, which is overseeing a track at the conference, did all of its fundraising separately because it was not comfortable with the WCSJ’s sponsorship decisions.

MIT Technology Review senior editor for biomedicine Antonio Regalado, who received a travel reimbursement to attend world conference, said that, after reflecting more on the sponsorship model, he’s now thinking of giving that money back. “Hard to work up a lather if JnJ is only paying 10 percent of conference cost,” he wrote in an email to Undark. (The actual percentage is higher.) “Still, on a typical plane fare/hotel/conference pass 10 percent might be worth $100 to $200, which is more than the value of a coffee mug or a cash gift you’d accept, right?”

(Full disclosure: some members of Undark’s staff will be among the conference attendees, although the magazine is paying for its own travel and accommodations.)

The WCSJ case is far from an isolated example. The European Conference of Science Journalists, held in Copenhagen in June, got funding from Johnson & Johnson, too, as well as a major gift from the philanthropic wing of the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk. The National Press Foundation has also recently offered science journalism workshops underwritten by Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer.

In July, HealthNewsReview reported that the prestigious Poynter Institute had hosted an all-expenses-paid workshop on science fact-checking that was underwritten by the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, an alcohol industry nonprofit. And the investigative reporter Paul Thacker has recently reported on journalism workshops that were put together by Coca-Cola and by the agro-tech industry.

Over the past two months, HealthNewsReview has taken a leading role in covering this kind of funding, with a special series on conflicts of interest. “For God’s sake, with all of the conflict of interest questions swirling around the current administration in Washington, and then with the all of the cheap shots that the current administration takes at journalism, you would think that of all times journalism right now would do everything that it could to wear steel underwear and to ensure that they were pure,” said Gary Schwitzer, the founder and publisher of HNR, in an interview with Undark. “And we just seem to be going in a different direction.”

Event organizers respond that this funding frees them up to provide better programming. They also argue that money from foundations and other philanthropies — the other primary funding stream for such events — often comes with restrictions and expectations that the donor can help to plan the event. “If you want to do these events in the current environment, where funding is — where you know where the funding is — then you have to make these choices,” said Reid, who points out that the WCSJ is costly, in part, because of the financial support it offers to students and journalists from the developing world.

I asked Kelly McBride, a media ethicist and Poynter vice president, what the organization would look like if they stopped taking money from corporate sources. “Could we do it? Sure. Would we reach half the journalists that we reach now, or maybe even only a third of the journalists that we reach now? Yeah, that’s absolutely what would happen,” she said. Foundation funding comes with its own problems, she argued, because “you are subject to the whims of the foundations you work for.”

McBride defended the choice to take money from an alcohol industry organization for its fact-checking workshop. “An organization within the alcohol industry that has a really specific agenda — that’s different,” she said. “It’s not the alcohol industry writ large.”

“We think journalists are pretty damn smart,” she added, “which is why we are transparent as we can possibly be about the funding.”

When Undark contacted two journalists who had served on the faculty at the Poynter science fact-checking workshop, both admitted that they had not realized at first where the money was coming from, even though the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility (FAAR) was listed in the invitation email.

“I attended the conference assuming that because it was being held by Poynter — a journalism organization — it did not present any conflict of interest for me,” Usha Lee McFarling, the West Coast correspondent for STAT, wrote in an email to Undark, adding, “this is a good reminder for me to check the details closely before I agree to participate in events even when housed at journalism conferences or by journalism organizations.”

While maintaining that the HealthNewsReview critique of the FAAR event was “unfair,” McBride announced in a blog post published Thursday that Poynter had updated and clarified its ethics policy — including its handling of funding from outside sources.

In our interview, Reid, the WCSJ organizer, recalled days when publications had more money, and, she said, media organizations didn’t have to hunt so far afield for support. “I came up in those days,” she said. “I wish we still had them.”

But Schwitzer, for one, remained skeptical that there weren’t other sources of money available.

“They’re out there,” he said. “And until you show me that you’ve exhausted all those other options, I’m going to keep my knife sharpened in addressing you taking industry money.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that the National Association of Science Writers and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing both solicited funding from Johnson & Johnson to support the World Conference of Science Journalists. The company was approached by CASW alone.

Michael Schulson is an American freelance writer covering science, religion, technology, and ethics. His work has been published by Pacific Standard magazine, Aeon, New York magazine, and The Washington Post, among other outlets, and he writes the Matters of Fact and Tracker columns for Undark.

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.