Beware the National Press Foundation’s “high-fidelity” webinar: It’s not what it seems.

On Tuesday, March 18th, the National Press Foundation is sponsoring a webinar entitled "Tips for High-Fidelity Science Reporting."

"Any journalist who wants to improve her or his work on scientific topics will benefit from this webinar. It will highlight common challenges in communicating science and offer specific tips to enhance the fidelity and richness of scientific reporting," says the announcement.

Do not sign up for this. Better yet, send the National Press Foundation an email and tell them to cancel it.

The webinar is not intended to boost science journalism. It's intended to boost the fortunes of The Coca-Cola Company, which needs little help from us.

I'll give the press foundation a score of 50% on transparency. The announcement for the webinar says, prominently, "This program is underwritten by The Coca-Cola Company."

So why only 50%? Because of what it doesn't say about the presenters.

I'm not familiar with the two instructors who will be running this webinar. I don't know everyone, but I know a lot of people, and when I see strangers claiming to be able to teach science writing, I'm curious to see who they are.

The first speaker listed here is David Allison of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In 2011, ABC News  noted that Allison has extensive ties to Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and the American Beverage Association. According to ABC, he was paid by the New York Restaurant Association to file an affidavit against New York City and a law requiring restaurants to post calorie counts on menus.

"His actions outraged many of his colleagues, and Allison eventually submitted his resignation as the incoming president of the Obesity Society over the controversy that followed the filing of his affidavit, which he signed as president-elect of the Obesity Society," ABC reported.

So much for the Press Foundation's first speaker.

The second, Andrew W. Brown–also, oddly, of the University of Alabama at Birmingham–published a paper in April, 2013 in which he argued that all kinds of popular public-health interventions to prevent obesity can have unintended consequences, making the obesity problem worse. He argues against such things as taxing sugar-sweetened beverages and labeling calories on vending machine drinks.

He might be right about those things, but we should be suspicious. If you scroll all the way down, you come to this: "Dr. Brown receives grant support from the Coca-Cola Foundation through his institution."

Two guys who are supported by Coke are going to speak at a webinar underwritten by Coke about how you can do a better job with science reporting?

Obviously, the answer is, say nice things about Coke. Think twice about criticizing sugary drinks. Raise doubts about almost any public-health intervention intended to fight obesity–especially if it means cutting back on Coke.

So here's the thing: Coke is entitled to hold any kind of webinar it wants. It can invite science reporters to Atlanta for a free Coke weekend, with free passes to the World of Coca-Cola. This is free enterprise. Free speech. The American way.

But why on earth is a journalism organization allowing Coke to use its cred to legitimize this webinar? This is a scandal.

And, sadly, it's not the first time the National Press Foundation has allowed a single corporation to, like a virus, invade its boundaries and take command of its journalistic DNA. In 2010, it produced an "education program" on cancer–supported by Pfizer, which has any number of reasons to want to "educate" reporters. And I don't know how many other times this has happened that I've missed.

The National Press Foundation's "about" page says, "The primary mission of the National Press Foundation is to increase journalists' knowledge of complex issues in order to improve public understanding, and to encourage "excellence in journalism."

If this webinar is any indication, the foundation is doing neither.

The webinar will very likely promote the interests of Coca-Cola, not public understanding. And it almost certainly will attempt to encourage a kinder and gentler view of Coke–not journalistic excellence.

You can say what you want about the appropriate role of corporations in education and journalism, but it's never appropriate for a single funder to support "education" programs on topics in which it has clear financial interest. And it's never appropriate for a journalism organization to accept funding in such circumstances.

-Paul Raeburn

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