It’s Our Job To Know About ‘Experts’ Conflicts Of Interest

This is not optional: Before we put “experts” in our stories, we have to know where their financial support comes from, who’s paid for their latest work and whether they’re doing any lobbying or advocating related to the issue we’re interviewing them about. It’s information that may knock them out of stories and needs to be shared if they stay in.

That all seems obvious. Why are we bringing it up now?

Well, if you haven’t read these two New York Times reports yet, do so:

- “How Think Tanks Amplify Corporate America’s Influence

- “Think Tank Scholar or Corporate Consultant? It Depends on the Day.”

This “nut graph” should concern us all:

“Think tanks, which position themselves as ‘universities without students,’ have power in government policy debates because they are seen as researchers independent of moneyed interests. But in the chase for funds, think tanks are pushing agendas important to corporate donors, at times blurring the line between researchers and lobbyists. And they are doing so while reaping the benefits of their tax-exempt status, sometimes without disclosing their connections to corporate interests.”

That’s troubling because news outlets are constantly interviewing “experts” from those think tanks. Many of those experts are getting into stories without any references to their connections to “moneyed interests” and lobbying groups. We aren’t perfect on that score. I suspect it’s because in some cases we didn’t do enough digging.

This is important: Just as we said that we have to ask experts about any connections they have to candidates, we have to be looking at the connections experts from think tanks, universities and other institutions might have to interest groups and others.

That means, as we said above, asking questions such as:

- Who’s funding your work?

- Who or what organization has supported you in the past?

- Who paid for the study?

- Is your organization (or school or think tank) taking any money from a corporation or organization with an interest in the issue?

- Are you lobbying or advocating on this issue?

If someone won’t answer such questions, that’s a red flag.

Answers need to be checked, of course. Look in archives. Consult databases. Read a think tank’s annual report and other disclosure forms to see where it’s been getting its money. The RAD team can help.

We should use tools such as the U.S. Senate Lobbying Disclosure Act Database to find out if an expert is also a registered lobbyist.

This is also critical. We have to keep expanding our contact lists to get away from the usual think tanks and sources. Have you consulted the Source of the Week lately or contributed to it? Please do.

Finding out that a study was paid for by a corporation with an interest in the issue will raise questions about the findings. Learning that a think tank “fellow” is also a paid lobbyist may mean that person doesn’t make it into a story. Whatever the result, it’s basic information that we we’re expected to know and share with our audience.

Finally, there’s this: If an expert’s potential conflict of interest should have been revealed in a story, but wasn’t, that is an error that needs to be acknowledged and corrected.

(“Memmos;” Aug. 15, 2016)

August 15, 2016

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