Bending Journalism

Thomas O. McGarity and Wendy Wagner’s book Bending Science: How Special Interests Corrupt Public Health Research is an extraordinary contribution to the sociology of knowledge. The typology of tools for bending science mentioned on page 10 of the book (spinning, packaging, harassing, attacking, hiding, and shaping) are elaborated in great detail in cases ranging from popcorn lung to alar panics. I predict that typology will eventually inform research on “bent journalism”–the range of so-called objective reporting subtly shaped by stealth sponsors.

On the Media does a great job covering such situations. This week it reports on conflicts of interest at the show The Infinite Mind, whose host earned “at least $1.3 million from 2000 to 2007 giving marketing lectures for drugmakers, income not mentioned on the program.” [SEE UPDATE BELOW FOR CLARIFICATION.] Gary Schwitzer, director of the University of Minnesota’s Health Journalism Program, identifies “five sins of health reporters:”

Gullibility and naiveté as number one; a failure to discuss costs as number two; as number three, the failure to tell both how small might be the potential benefit and how large might be the potential harms; number four, [failure] to get independent sources; and, number five, to always be looking for conflict of interest in those sources.

Schwitzer’s Health News Review grades health stories on these and other bases. Like McGarity/Wagner’s chapters on “Restoring Science” and “Reforming Science Oversight,” the Health News Review is essential reading for those concerned about the real material bases of conventional wisdom.

UPDATE: As of Mar. 23, 2009, On the Media has issued an apology for the “Infinite Mind” story. A press release on the topic appears here. According to Current.org:

On the Media has apologized for, and corrected, what it called a “lapse in journalistic judgment” concerning a November 2008 story on the public radio show The Infinite Mind. Dr. Fred Goodwin, the show’s host, had stirred controversy when The New York Times reported that he had accepted more than a million dollars in speaking fees from drug companies and talked about their brand-name drugs on the show. The Infinite Mind producer Bill Lichtenstein had previously denied, in statements on his production company’s website, knowledge of Goodwin’s links to pharmaceutical firms. Host Brooke Gladstone said on March 22’s OTM that an anonymous source used on the show turned out to have “no first-hand evidence that (Lichtenstein) knew of any fees.” Gladstone admitted that OTM was wrong to not contact Lichtenstein for his comments. She said that was “a mistake, it wasn’t fair and it didn’t serve our listeners.” The Infinite Mind ran for 10 years, ceasing production at the end of 2008. It was distributed to public radio stations and ran on NPR’s Sirius Satellite channel.

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