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Wrong Turn for Science Journalism

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJuly 9, 2011 3:41 AM


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If you recall, last week I expressed some dismay that a three part series on global warming in Scientific American magazine was financed by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. To my surprise, no journalistic watchdogs (or science journalists) rose up to publicly question this unusual arrangement. But Bud Ward at the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media comes close in this post. Quite frankly, I'm gobsmacked by what he's learned in interviews with an editor at SciAm and the writer of the series (John Carey). Let's start with this passage from Ward's piece (my emphasis):

Carey says he insisted to Pew that he alone retain editorial control over the story "” "just like any other story" "” and that Pew could not tell him what to write. At the same time, however, he acknowledged showing Pew staffers a first draft and a final draft prior to its publication. "I kept them apprised of drafts," he said, says Pew had "no editorial control" and offered "no substantive comments" on the final draft, which he said had been shared across the Pew Center staff and not solely with its climate science personnel.

That is a huge no-no in journalism. Quite frankly, I'm astonished that Carey, a seasoned pro, would do this. I'm sorry, but you can't wrap your magazine story in the mantle of editorial independence while allowing it (in several draft forms) to be passed around the organization that's funding it. That's not how it happens, "just like any other story." Ward also elicited from SciAm executive editor Fred Guterl this odd rationalization of the Pew/SciAm partnership:

In a phone interview, Guterl also acknowledged uncertainties about "where to draw the line," and he said "journalism is in a place where it's never been before. There are a lot of new models out there." He defended the financial backing of the Carey series in part because he sees the Pew Center as "nonpartisan and nonprofit" and because of its tax status as not being a lobbying interest. While saying he stands by the journalistic merits of the series, he said the funding arrangement inevitably raises some legitimate concerns about journalistic independence.

Let's leave aside the little matter of Pew's mission and just ask this: Are Guterl and SciAm okay with Pew being allowed to review pre-publication drafts of one of their stories? Am I the only one who has a problem with this whole arrangement? UPDATE: In the comments, John Rennie, a former editor-in-chief of Scientific American, seeks to clarify the financial arrangement between Pew and Scientific American. It is worth noting, as Rennie does, that Pew directly paid the writer, John Carey, for his work---not the magazine. This arrangement between Pew and Carey is also discussed at Bud Ward's post.

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