ProPublica Reporter Calls For Journalists To Be "More Skeptical" Of Researchers Backed By Corporate Interests
ProPublica's Faturechi: Media Should "Ask Harder Questions" Before Quoting Or Publishing Corporate-Backed Research
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ProPublica reporter Robert Faturechi is calling for journalists to “be more skeptical” and “ask harder questions” about the corporate funding and influence behind pundits and research organizations passing themselves off as independent.
In an August 10 post published on The New York Times’ Room for Debate blog, Faturechi proclaimed: “It’s our job as journalists to make sure that lawmakers and the public aren’t making major policy decisions based on compromised studies." He added that journalists should "ask harder questions" about think tank researchers' corporate backing "[b]efore we quote them or their studies, or publish their op-eds." His post comes days after the Times published an investigative series about how think tank scholars offering themselves as independent arbiters “have become part of the corporate influence machine” affecting policy in Washington. One article examined 75 think tanks and found that many researchers “had simultaneously worked as registered lobbyists, members of corporate boards or outside consultants in litigation and regulatory disputes, with only intermittent disclosure of their dual roles.” Another explained that think tanks scholars are “pushing agendas important to corporate donors," which “blur[s] the line between researchers and lobbyists," and they're often doing it without disclosing their connections.
Several Media Matters analyses have found that fossil fuel-funded pundits passing themselves off as independent experts often publish op-eds or are quoted in the news without disclosing their industry ties, and a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found that oil-funded organizations are “more likely to have written and disseminated texts meant to polarize the climate change issue." Media Matters has also outlined how for-profit education companies and other corporations have backed a broad network of think tanks to influence education policy in their favor.
From Faturechi’s Room for Debate post:
It’s our job as journalists to make sure that lawmakers and the public aren’t making major policy decisions based on compromised studies. Big name universities and prestigious think tanks provide researchers with an imprimatur of independence. But as The New York Times and other outlets have shown, their work is often funded, and sometimes shaped, by special interests with a rooting interest in particular findings. Reporters and editors need to be more skeptical of experts, and the false sense of security that their name brand affiliations provide. Before we quote them or their studies, or publish their op-eds, we have to ask harder questions about their funding and their outside employment.
Oftentimes simply asking won’t be enough. When the research is being done at a public university, we have an easier time digging up undisclosed conflicts. Emails between professors and their funders are typically subject to public records requests. Those communications can be revelatory, but they’re harder to come by when the researchers are working for private think tanks. In those cases, we have to rely on less straightforward entry points, like think tank researchers happening to communicate with government officials who are subject to FOIA. Or we have to hope for leaks. Neither method is particularly reliable.
Research that is funded by a corporation, or any other special interest for that matter, isn’t necessarily flawed. And researchers who are moonlighting for outside groups aren’t necessarily untrustworthy. But lawmakers and the public deserve more visibility into the research that is shaping policy in Washington and in statehouses across the country. Investigative reporting is one remedy. Another would be stricter transparency rules.