Times Reminds Reporters to be ‘Constantly Alert’

Clark Hoyt (and nytpicker) have had their hands full keeping track of Times freelancers who accept freebies/payment from the people they cover. But there’s also the problem of sources who accept freebies/payment—or at least, of portraying such individuals as impartial experts.

Following several recent Editors’ Notes on this issue, Standards editor Phil Corbett finally adressed the issue with an email alerting the newsroom to the pitfalls of quoting “consultants.” In a message sent today (two weeks after the first incident he cites), Corbett reminded staffers to be “constantly alert” to the possibility that their sources are not totally pure at heart.

“We should always try to learn whatever we can about a source’s ties and motivation,” he wrote.

Full email below.

We’ve run several Editors’ Notes recently about sources whom we viewed as independent experts but who, it turned out, had financial ties to the issues they were discussing (two examples are below; another is coming soon).

This is not a new problem, of course, but it seems to be on the rise. Consulting arrangements and other such deals are more and more common for doctors, academics, former policymakers and other experts. And unfortunately the sources are not usually quick to volunteer that information.

Reporters and editors must be constantly alert to this possibility. We should always try to learn whatever we can about a source’s ties and motivation. Reporters shouldn’t hesitate to ask “expert” sources directly whether they have any financial interest or other personal stake in the issue under discussion — indeed, in many areas such questions should probably be routine.

When such connections surface, reporters and editors should discuss them carefully. There are bound to be gray areas; in some cases, the connections may be so distant or minor as to be judged irrelevant. But if it seems likely that readers’ views of the source or the issue would be affected by the information, we should normally note it in the story. And in some cases, we may well decide to seek out a different, more truly independent expert.

I’m happy to discuss any cases where you’re uncertain how to proceed. Thanks.
Phil Corbett

January 14, 2010, Thursday Late Edition – Final
Editors’ Note

Several articles in the past year about the government’s plans to overhaul the health care system quoted Jonathan Gruber, identifying him as a professor of economics at M.I.T. On Friday, Professor Gruber confirmed reports that he is also a paid consultant on health care issues for the Department of Health and Human Services. Had editors been aware of his government work, the articles would have disclosed this relationship to readers.

An article on Saturday about union opposition to a proposed tax on health insurance did initially mention Professor Gruber’s government ties, but the point was deleted during the editing process.

January 7, 2010, Thursday Late Edition – Final
Editors’ Note

The Skin Deep column last Thursday, about electronic home-treatment devices that supposedly alleviate acne, included a qualified
endorsement of such products by Dr. Neil Sadick, a Manhattan dermatologist. Dr. Sadick has been an adviser to Radiancy, the maker of No!No! Skin products for acne removal, which were mentioned in the article. Although Dr. Sadick was not commenting directly on the No!No! device, the article should have either mentioned his connections to the company or omitted his comments.


Times Reminds Reporters to be ‘Constantly Alert’