Survey: Public Wants Press to Fully Describe Sources in Science Stories

By: Charles Geraci

A national survey released today by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) finds that how the media describes the background of health “experts” and organizations directly influences how credible they seem to the average reader or viewer.

Most of the 1,000 randomly selected adults in the survey say that the media should mention whether scientists or organizations quoted in their articles receive grants or funding from corporations.

For example, the survey shows 59 % of respondents had confidence in a hypothetical statement contending a drug is safe when the statement was attributed to a “Harvard professor whose research is government supported.” However, when the statement was merely attributed to “a Harvard professor,” only 48 % had confidence. When it was ascribed to a “Harvard professor whose research is supported by drug companies,” 41 % had confidence. But only 24 % of respondents trusted the statement when it 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,” Michael F. Jacobson, CSPI’s executive director, said in a statement.

CSPI says that the media often fails to disclose the funding sources of apparently independent nonprofit organizations quoted on health and medical issues.

For example, it said, the American Council on Science and Health–largely funded by chemical, food, and agribusiness companies–is often quoted minimizing certain risks to public health or discrediting studies alleging risks to health. CSPI said The New York Times sometimes cites the group as a “science advocacy group” or a “private health education group.” Other times, the newspaper has referred to the organization 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, 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 Center for Science in the Public Interest is a nonprofit organization that supports improved nutrition, food-safety, and pro-health alcohol policies. It is largely funded by subscribers to its Nutrition Action Healthletter and it says it receives no funding from corporations or the government.

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