ScienceBlogs trashes its bloggers’ credibility.


Update: A confidential response from Seed CEO Adam Bly was leaked and published by the Guardian. Check my update above.

If you cover such things as heart disease, obesity, food, and nutrition, you’d probably be interested in a blog called Food Frontiers that promises this, in its first post:

The focus will be on innovations in science, nutrition and health policy…We have some exciting things planned for this project, including a video series that will begin with a look at the role the food industry plays in health issues, and how industry research into chemistry, physiology, neuroscience, behavioral economics, medicine, and nutrition can improve health outcomes around the world…

If that isn’t tantalizing enough, this comes to us from ScienceBlogs, the respected blogging site from the Seed media group.

The catch? The blog is produced by PepsiCo, as a sidebar explains:

All editorial content is written by PepsiCo’s scientists or scientists invited by PepsiCo and/or ScienceBlogs.

The first post, put up on July 6th, has already attracted more attention on the web than the jailing of Lindsay Lohan. (Well, not really, but a lot more attention than most science blogs.)

Peter Lipson, a practicing internist and the author of White Coat Underground on ScienceBlogs, writes in a July 6th post that Food Frontiers “is not only a fundamental conflict of interest, it’s also deceptive.  If PepsiCo is providing the content, it should, in my opinion, be clearly labelled as advertising.”

David Dobbs, the author of one of the best neuroscience news blogs on the web, Neuron Culture, took his blog off of ScienceBlogs in protest, writing, in his farewell post, “I know all too well that the changing media landscape presents financial challenges. But this isn’t the way to meet them.”

Grrlscientist writes on ScienceBlogs:

Adding a PepsiCo “nutrition” “blog” damages the credibility of those of us who have invested literally years of our lives into building ScienceBlogs up into something special, something with integrity, something to be proud of.

Mark Chu-Carroll, a computer scientist who writes the Good Math, Bad Math blog, suspended his blogging for ScienceBlogs and promises to look elsewhere for a home if Seed persists with Pepsi.

Others on ScienceBlogs and across the web have raised alarms.

Dobbs is right when he notes that with the rise of new media we are all re-examining journalism’s traditional strictures regarding editorial content and advertising.

The issue can be contentious, and publishers and editors often disagree over what’s acceptable and what isn’t. But these things are fairly easy to sort out, in my view. What’s important–essential–for all journalism is credibility. We can write straight news, we can pontificate, we can do whatever we want in our writing, on or off line–but we need credibility with readers. It is readers–not advertisers–to whom we owe our allegiance.

Savvy advertisers will understand that, and will support it. Ads on sites and in publications that readers are devoted to and trust would, I imagine, carry more weight than ads in publications that don’t have that kind of relationship with their readers. I don’t have any evidence to back this up, but I’m betting Pepsi does.

The American Society of Magazine Editors has fought this fight for decades, working hard to establish standards for advertising in magazines. It explains the issues succinctly in its guidelines for editors and publishers:

For magazines to be trusted by consumers and to endure as brands, readers must be assured of their editorial integrity…

Editorial-looking sections or pages that are not produced by a magazines editors are not editorial content. They should be labeled Advertisement, Special Advertising Section or Promotion at the top of every page in type as prominent as the magazines normal body type…

Advertisers should not pay to place their products in editorial pages nor should they demand placement in return for advertising.

The folks at ScienceBlogs would do well to take a look at these guidelines. Sometimes old media has something important to say to new media. This is one of those times.

– Paul Raeburn