If a Pharmaceutical Company Publishes a Magazine, Is it Journalism?
Last summer, the German marketing firm TLGG approached Kira Peikoff, a freelance journalist, with an unusual request: Would she be interested in starting a magazine? The publication would cover the ethical and social implications of new biotechnologies. Peikoff would have total editorial control.
She would also have a powerful client footing the bill. Bayer, the German pharmaceutical and agricultural science conglomerate, would be rebranding an initiative that invests in high-risk, high-return projects, including in controversial areas like gene editing and stem cell research. As part of its communications strategy, the initiative — now called Leaps by Bayer — wanted to launch a digital magazine.
Peikoff has covered science for The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, and other national publications, and she has a master’s degree in bioethics from Columbia University — a résumé that seemed to make her a natural fit for the role. She also writes thriller novels, including one that features a scientist whose groundbreaking stem cell research is choked by excessive government regulation.
Peikoff took the job, and LeapsMag launched quietly last fall, with stories about Alzheimer’s diagnostics and gene therapy, and an essay defending the use of CRISPR to edit embryos’ DNA. Since then, it has published a mix of reported features, interviews, and opinion pieces. Its roster of contributors includes scientists, ethicists, and veteran science journalists.
This may be the first time a biotech company has launched a media venture. And while LeapsMag is still small, it raises some big questions. What happens, after all, when a pharmaceutical company starts a magazine? And perhaps more pointedly for science journalists: Is editorial independence even possible when a multinational company is funding the entire operation?
I first learned about LeapsMag earlier this year, when Peikoff emailed to see if I was interested in accepting a freelance assignment. The rate she offered — $2.00 per word — was much higher than the industry standard. After learning about the Bayer connection, I chose not to accept the assignment, concerned that taking money from Bayer, even indirectly, would compromise my ability to report on the company. But a few weeks later, still curious about the magazine’s model, I arranged a conversation with Peikoff.
Peikoff says that she hesitated when TLGG approached her last year. “I’ve always been an independent journalist, and I’m not interested in corporate publicity,” she said. Bayer assured her that she would have full editorial independence — and, she says, they have so far kept that promise.
“I have total control over the content,” Peikoff told me. “I created the sections, I’ve come up with all the article ideas, they don’t look at anything in advance, they don’t ask me what I’m going to do, they have no veto power.”
Still, in an email to Undark, a freelance science journalist who was a finalist for the LeapsMag role that ultimately went to Peikoff reported feeling “uneasy” about the project as it was described in meetings with Bayer. “It was clear that, yes, they did want an independent publication, as long as it didn’t criticize ethical issues that touched on Bayer, such as the big Bayer-Monsanto merger which is under review right now,” wrote the freelancer, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid the appearance of publicly criticizing other contract writers who may decide to work with Leaps. The Monsanto merger, this person added, “was specifically off the table.”
In a brief follow-up phone call, the freelancer stressed that the company never gave any signal that it would aggressively dictate coverage. “It wasn’t a directive,” this person said. “It was more, they were paying your checks.
So what’s in it for Bayer? I asked André Guillaume, the Head of Identity Management for Leaps by Bayer, why the initiative wanted to start a magazine about bioethics. He pointed out that companies in the industry usually enter these kinds of thorny conversations only under duress — and then they push a particular position. “We said, okay, we want to communicate differently. We don’t want to impose opinions on people or just tell the world what we think and that they should think the same,” Guillaume said. “We really rather want to present a broad bandwidth of opinions out there.”
“We have zero influence on the content,” he added.
Both Guillaume and Peikoff are aware that readers may have concerns. Before the magazine launched, Peikoff told me, someone advised her to put a statement on the magazine’s website explaining why she took the job, and how she thinks about editorial independence. She wrote up a few paragraphs that now appear on the LeapsMag site.
But first, she sent her independence statement — which asserts that she is not beholden to Bayer — to Bayer. “I was worried that it might ruffle some feathers,” Peikoff told me.
To her delight, they liked it.
Editorial independence is a slippery concept, and it refers to more than specific decisions over specific pieces of content. “The only people who have editorial independence are the people who have the money,” wrote Paul Raeburn, a longtime science journalist and media critic (and a onetime Undark columnist), in an email message. “Any editor — whether employed by a pharmaceutical company, a newspaper, or a news website — is subject to dismissal or demotion. That can severely limit editorial independence. And editors are dismissed for all kinds of reasons all the time…They serve at the desire of their publishers.”
That dynamic poses challenges for traditional publications, too — just witness the conversations around Jeff Bezos’ purchase of The Washington Post — but it points to distinctive pitfalls in a case like LeapsMag, in which a company funds a magazine that reports on issues directly relevant to that company’s bottom line.
Among those pitfalls: If the magazine’s content is too critical of emerging technologies, will Bayer simply cut off funding? And can LeapsMag actually report on Bayer, one of the world’s largest players in the biotech field?
Guillaume insisted that Peikoff could run pieces critical of Bayer and the kinds of research in which it has invested hundreds of millions of dollars. And he expressed a hope that other funding sources or partnerships — including, possibly, with other biotech companies — could one day help LeapsMag grow independently of Leaps by Bayer.
The magazine’s articles have indeed offered some critical perspectives on certain life science innovations, although the balance of pieces so far have focused on the bright promise of biotechnology. Some of those pieces, like one titled “A Drug Straight Out of Science Fiction Has Arrived,” highlight the work of Bayer’s competitors. One story, headlined “Why Aren’t Gene Editing Treatments Available Yet For People With Genetic Disorders?,” discusses the work of CRISPR Therapeutics and Casebia Therapeutics — a Leaps by Bayer partner company, and a Leaps by Bayer spinoff company, respectively — without disclosing the connection.
LeapsMag is launching at a time when the lines between journalism and sponsored content can sometimes seem to be blurring. While the magazine’s creators insist that they want to publish journalism, they may not be able to avoid occupying a gray zone, somewhere on the borders between journalism and native advertising.
“For this to have any credibility with readers, it really has to be this neutral thing,” said Peikoff. “And I think all of us knew going into this that our biggest challenge was how to present this case, and how to really showcase this for readers so that we could gain credibility. And that’s something I’m still working on.”
UPDATE: This article has been updated to include input from a freelance science journalist who was also courted for the editor in chief position at LeapsMag. We’ve reached out again to Bayer for a response to the freelancer’s concerns, and will update the story again as needed.
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.
LeapsMag pivoted to a nonprofit business model in March 2021. Kira Peikoff is still editor. The new initiative is part of Good Worldwide. Support comes from the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, the Rita Allen Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and other like-minded institutions.
This sentence is deeply misleading. “Peikoff took the job, and LeapsMag launched quietly last fall, with stories about Alzheimer’s diagnostics and gene therapy, and an essay defending the use CRISPR to edit embryos’ DNA.” The desired implication of the last example (“an essay defending the use CRISPR…” (ignoring the grammatical mistake/poor editing in missing “of”)) is to indicate that the pro-tech view comes from the biotech.
An actually well-reported piece of journalism would have noted that they published *three* essays on the subject in the very *same* issue, one defending, one condemning, and one in between.
Saying that “X published a series of opposing views on…” is very different from saying “X published an essay defending…”
Thanks for reading us so closely and bringing this typo to our attention, disappointed.
Not going to discuss medical journalism, but rather the comments. When this type of audience exists, well, that’s a sign that free press could not be available soon. You are as entitled to question journalism as they are entitled to challenge your questions. That’s not blurry; we’re all allowed to ask questions, even within the darkest areas of our very existence.
So dear commenters, I will so discuss your opinion in an Undark post about “question the questions about the corporate world.” Not here. Here we’re talking about Big Pharma and hypocrisy.
I want to suggest you check out my you tube web site,, Sandra olson dna fraud errors. The problem with the industry you are talking about is that they are not independently regulated. they verify their own work, they rarely release it for independent review,, if you could find someone independent to review it.. Last night on dr oz, there was a story about the honey industry. how it was not really honey, but a mix of honey and cheap syrups. some bad for your health. but with no regulatory body, and self verification of their own product, they made a fortune lying to the public and selling whatever was in their bottle. Sound familiar?? just like the dna industry. Just like the pharmaceutical industry. You have to ask yourself. If honey production is not to be relied upon,, why is any other industry that is unregulated and not safeguarded by independent review??
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I know from personal experience that the statement, “This may be the first time a biotech company has launched a media venture,” is mistaken.
I’m the senior managing editor of the U.S. version of Univadis.com, a news and information website for physicians that’s active in 90 countries around the world. Univadis is published by a company called Aptus Health, and Aptus Health, in turn, is owned by the pharmaceutical company known as MSD in Europe and Merck & Co., Inc., Kenilworth, NJ, in the U.S. Univadis was formerly known as Merck Medicus.
MSD has a long history of publishing objective, non-commercial material for physicians. It published the first edition of the well known and highly respected Merck Manual 120 years ago. Although Univadis.com is indirectly owned by MSD, the company has a strong incentive to be scrupulous about our editorial independence. If it were not, every single thing published on Univadis.com would be considered an advertisement and would be subject to medical-legal review. I’m certain the situation is similar for Bayer and Leaps.
No publication is totally immune from interference from its corporate masters. Witness the recent kerfluffle at Newsweek, for example. Witness the many local newspapers who feel beholden to their advertisers. ABC News is owned by Disney. But the best news organizations (Univadis among them) have specific policies in place to guard against corporate interference in objective reporting.
The Dark History of Bayer Drugs
Bayer’s Role in the Holocaust
“To many people the Holocaust and Third Reich have become synonymous with World War II. Among the many crimes against humanity, perhaps the most renown horrors were the mass executions that took place in the extermination camps sprinkled throughout Europe. Auscwhitz is undoubtedly the most famous of them all, known for their quickness to execute prisoners and resident doctor, Josef Mengele. Wanting to better understand the human body and particularly the nuances of heredity, Mengele became infamous for his experiments that included injecting dye in to children’s eyeballs and repeated x-rays on the reproductive organs, to see if he could make prisoners infertile. By better understanding the reproductive process, Mengele wanted to propel the growth of the Aryan race while sterilizing “undesirables”- the handicapped, gypsies and those of the Jewish race.
Mengele also became well-known for performing a variety of other inhumane experiments. Some of them included injecting one twin with sickness like typhus or gangrene, and then immediately slaughtering the other when the first twin died to compare the two corpses to see the anatomical differences. To test the effectiveness of new drugs, Mengele also injected various chemicals in to his victims, often paralyzing or killing them. In other experiments Mengele would dissect pregnant mothers and children, without anesthesia. Many of these experiments were in a large part sponsored by IG Farben who paid Auschwitz doctors to test their drugs on the prison victims and to discover the “secrets to heredity”. IG Farben also manufactured the cans of Zyklon B gas that were used in Auschwitz’s gas chambers. As of 1952 the company was liquidated due to its egregious war crimes and participation in Nazi Germany. Bayer was one of the four original chemical companies that survived the company’s liquidation. In 1995 the head of Bayer, Helge Wehmeier, formally apologized to Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel for the company’s participation in Nazi Germany. The company has yet to issue a formal apology outside of that lecture.”
What a disgusting question. Bayer owned Aushwitz. Of course it isnt journalism. Own up to your creepy bussiness practices. Buy off all you cam before you fall…
There continues to be much hand-wringing about the appearance of an impossibility that a non-journalism entity can sponsor and support a publication without succumbing to some manipulation. And yet, major traditional news organizations are slowly but surely being dismembered by their companies’ leadership in search of more profit, editorial decisions are being made largely to maximize clicks and views, and writers or all sorts are being compensated less and less — if employed at all. As disheartening as this is, it still seems acutely disingenuous for journalists— and publications like Undark — to infer, or blatantly accuse others of prostituting their roles. Communications has changed and the traditional role of journalists as holier than other writers is simply hypocritical.
This is interesting to me from another perspective. Not long ago, Undark published a conspiracy-theory screed by Carey Gillam. Carey is paid by the organic industry to produce material. We have the documents that show what she makes from USRTK.
I don’t know if Undark paid her for the piece she wrote. But you published it.
What is Undark’s role in touting industry lines? Is that blurry at all to you?