Readers Consider the Source, But Media Don’t Always Give It
News Articles Often Silent on Scientists’ and Groups’ Funding & Biases
How a reporter describes an expert source determines how much credibility a reader gives to the expert’s assertion, according to a new national survey released today by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Most respondents say that news media should disclose whether information in their articles comes from scientists or organizations who receive grants or funding from corporations.
According to the poll, 59 percent had confidence in a hypothetical statement asserting a drug is safe when the statement was attributed to a “Harvard professor whose research is government supported.” When the statement was simply attributed to “a Harvard professor,” 48 percent had confidence. 41 percent had confidence in the statement when it was attributed to a “Harvard professor whose research is supported by drug companies.” Only 24 percent of those surveyed had confidence when the statement was attributed to a “Harvard professor who owns stock in drug companies.”
“These findings are particularly salient at a time when so many researchers are funded by the very companies whose products they are studying or commenting on,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “Regrettably, the news media do an uneven job of disclosing potentially biasing sources of funding when quoting scientific researchers or reporting their findings. Readers, therefore, can’t put various reports about medicine or health into context.”
As an example, CSPI points to media citations of Dr. Graham Emslie, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center who has received research funding and consulting fees from numerous drug companies, including those that make antidepressants such as Prozac (made by Eli Lilly) and Paxil (GlaxoSmithKline). Emslie is widely quoted supporting the use of those drugs in young people. While The Washington Post reliably discloses Emslie’s financial ties to drug makers or notes that his research is conducted on their behalf, other media outlets often identify Emslie only as a professor, researcher, or study author, and less frequently disclose his ties to the drug makers whose products he studies.
The CSPI survey also tested respondents’ confidence in a statement from a hypothetical organization called the National Committee on Science indicating that “the pesticide is safe.” When that group was identified as a “nonprofit group that consists of 400 scientists and doctors,” 71 percent of those surveyed were very or somewhat confident in the statement. 58 percent had confidence when the group was identified just as “a nonprofit group,” and 53 percent had confidence in the statement when the group was identified as a “nonprofit group that is largely funded by the government.” When the group was identified as “largely funded by chemical and other companies,” only 33 percent were confident in the statement about the pesticide.
According to CSPI, news accounts often fail to identify the funding sources of ostensibly independent nonprofit organizations that are quoted on health and medical issues. For instance, a real group called the American Council on Science and Health is largely funded by chemical, food, and agribusiness companies and is widely quoted downplaying various risks to public health or discrediting studies indicating risks to health. In the pages of The New York Times it is sometimes blandly cited as a “science advocacy group,” a “private health education group,” or a “group that describes itself as 400 doctors and scientists who release position statements on science and the environment.” Elsewhere, the Times more helpfully has described the group as a “consumer foundation in Manhattan that is in part financed by industry,” or as a group that is “financed in part by the food industry.”
“If a reporter is going to quote a group like the American Council on Science and Health, the Center for Consumer Freedom, or other nonprofit groups funded by corporations, that reporter should be sure to identify the corporations that fund it,” Jacobson said. “If a group refuses to disclose its corporate funding, journalists should say so.”
“The best journalism occurs when the media give complete disclosures about their sources and their financial arrangements,” said Trudy Lieberman, president of the Association of Health Care Journalists. “Anything less cheats the readers and viewers.”
The survey of 1,000 randomly selected adults was conducted by TNS Express Omnibus, from May 26 to May 30, 2004. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 3.2 percent.
How the news media and medical journals report financial conflicts of interest among quoted experts and study authors is among the topics to be addressed at a July 12 conference organized by CSPI’s Integrity in Science Project.
For the record, the Center for Science in the Public Interest is a nonprofit organization that advocates for improved nutrition, food-safety, and pro-health alcohol policies. It is largely funded by some 850,000 subscribers to its Nutrition Action Healthletter, and it receives some foundation support as well. CSPI discloses its foundation donors on its web site. CSPI takes no funding from corporations and no government grants.