Airing Problems in Science, Industry, and Reporting

The PBS show AIR: America's Investigative Reports is always fascinating viewing. Each episode looks at the reporting behind a specific investigative story. Last week's episode, "Science Fiction," was of particular interest for professional, industry, and association publications, though. It centered on reporting done by Environmental Science & Technology, which is published by the American Chemical Society.

Paul D. Thacker, who was a reporter at ES&T, starting finding evidence of deliberate attempts to slant science news to benefit certain industries. Among Thacker 's findings:
  • Steven J. Milloy, the publisher of JunkScience.com, which criticizes scientific research findings on topics like global climate change and health issues, was a science consultant for Philip Morris at the same time he was debunking the risks of second-hand smoke on Fox New's web site. (At this writing, JunkScience.com has posted no statement about the AIR episode.)

  • A purportedly grassroots activist group in Oregon called Project Protect was connected to the timber industry. The group advocated for cutting down trees as means of preventing forest fires, a position also espoused by the industry.

  • The consulting firm The Weinberg Group submitted a proposal to DuPont detailing ways to defend an allegedly carcinogenic chemical used in Teflon.
Thacker reported on these issues in ES&T (see Related Links, below, for stories accessible to non-ES&T subscribers). He received acclaim for his work -- including an award from the Society of Environmental Journalists -- and got positive feedback from readers.

Thacker's story especially resonated because of the recent publication of ASBPE's book Journalism That Matters, which tells how B2B writers reported articles that brought about positive change in their industries. But Thacker's reporting didn't result in quite such a happy outcome as those in the book.

An American Chemical Society board member questioned the value of Thacker's reporting on the Weinberg group, and Thacker says he was soon asked to stop doing investigative pieces. When he found evidence that the Bush administration had tried to stop scientists from discussing connections between climate change and hurricanes, ES&T wasn't interested in publishing the story, he says; in September his climate change story was published on Salon.com. Thacker says he was later fired by ES&T. (The magazine has released a statement about the AIR report and Thacker's departure from the magazine, saying among other things that American Chemical Society rules prohibit board members from interfering with publication editors' activities. Thacker now works for the web site Inside Higher Ed.)

If you get a chance to catch a repeat of the episode, or any installation of AIR, I highly recommend it. And for a look at techniques business press reporters used to get key information for controversial articles, see this report from the ASBPE Washington, D.C., blog.

Related links:

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