Readers of USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and Atlantic Monthly might expect that prominent university professors quoted as independent experts on obesity would relay objective information based on the best science. They would be wrong.
Over the past few months, through excellent investigative work, journalists Anahad O’Connor and Candice Choi unmasked a scheme that should look familiar to anyone following health and environmental news: corporations paying front groups and scientists to spin the media and public in order to protect their products.
In this latest example, Coca-Cola — facing slipping sales and increasing pressure to regulate its products that are fueling the nation’s obesity epidemic — launched a new front group led by prominent professors. As O’Connor reported in The New York Times in August:
Coca-Cola, the world’s largest producer of sugary beverages, is backing a new “science-based” solution to the obesity crisis: To maintain a healthy weight, get more exercise and worry less about cutting calories.
The beverage giant has teamed up with influential scientists who are advancing this message in medical journals, at conferences and through social media. To help the scientists get the word out, Coke has provided financial and logistical support to a new nonprofit organization called the Global Energy Balance Network, which promotes the argument that weight-conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to exercise.
The Coke story is just the latest “Rent-a-Scientist” example of corporations quietly paying professors who appear in the media as independent experts, pushing points of view that happen to benefit the corporations from which they take money.
In December, a Greenpeace sting operation caught Princeton professor William Happer and Penn State professor emeritus Frank Clemente agreeing to take corporate cash (and conceal the payments) to write papers extolling the benefits of coal and carbon emissions.
That scandal followed the revelation that Wei-Hock Soon, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who claims global warming can be explained by variations in the sun’s energy, described his work as “deliverables” for corporate funders, as Justin Gillis and John Schwartz reported in The New York Times.
In September, emails obtained by my group US Right to Know linked Monsanto money to two professors who frequently appear in the media as independent experts on GMOs, as Eric Lipton reported in The New York Times.
A media analysis on that issue found 28 media stories quoting or written by University of Florida professor Kevin Folta or University of Illinois professor emeritus Bruce Chassy after they received Monsanto funding, but without disclosing the funding.
All these cases highlight that reporters need to do a better job researching their sources and disclosing the financial ties between corporations and academics. As Gary Ruskin wrote for US Right to Know:
If a professor takes money from one of these soda companies, that is crucial context for their views on obesity, and journalists disserve their readers by failing to report it. Readers need to know who pays sources to evaluate the legitimacy and biases of these sources.
The net effect of quoting these professors without disclosing their Coca-Cola funding is to unfairly enhance their credibility, while undermining the credibility of public health and consumer advocates.
By Stacy Malkan of US Right to Know
Excerpted from the complete report at usrtk.org/sweeteners
As for so-called ‘Frackademia’ — See "Conflicts, Bad Science in ‘Frackademia’ Studies" — corporate interests are commissioning their own ‘Science’ as recommended in the 1970s by the ‘powell memo’ to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Read more about this here.