Would you like to earn $300 for a 60-minute call with a market-research firm studying macular degeneration and its treatments?
We’re talking lawyer’s wages here; I don’t know any journalists who make $300 an hour.
With that in mind, might we suspect that the firm wanted something more for its money than a chat?
The Canadian Science Writers’ Association considered this situation, but it didn’t share my skepticism. Instead, it forwarded the offer to its members, saying in its cheery email, “Here is some information about an opportunity to participate in a medical media study.”
A Canadian science writer sent me a copy of the email, in which the market research firm, KeyQuest Health, said it was “currently booking writers, editors and producers to take part in a study we are doing on AMD and vitreoretinal treatments, obviously from a media person’s point of view.” It almost sounds harmless, until, a few sentences later, the firm’s rep says, “We are specifically looking for people who would be involved in selecting or developing news stories and who would make decisions regarding news stories.”
Translation: We’re specifically looking for people who can plant stories in the media.
I emailed Stephen Strauss, the president of the Canadian science writers’ group, to ask about this. He wrote back:
I (we) actually wondered about the nature of this offer directly in line with your worries. So I contacted the market research organization in advance of the posting. What they weren’t interested in was any sort of paid coverage or promotional stories about the new drug. Rather they wanted to know in a generic way how it was that Canadian reporters decided on what sort of medical stories to report on, whether they interacted with experts in the field, whether they interacted with advocacy groups and the like. The process was so anonymous that neither the drug nor the drug company was going to be identified in the interview. Indeed, there wasn’t even going to be a formal discussion of macular degeneration itself.
So given that very general approach to things it didn’t seem to me that there was any essential conflict of interest between subsequent objective reporting and talking to a market research firm about the lay of the land when it comes to Canadian medical reporting.
I suggested to Strauss that the firm could find out a lot about that by simply Googling a few Canadian science writers. “It does seem that the market research group could have learned much of the stuff on-line, but for some reason or another they chose to get information in this way. Even so,” he continued, “I find it hard to believe that you think that a journalist’s whole world view would be corrupted by having been interviewed in a general way about how medical stories are found. And that having participated in such an interview process, the reporter would then believe it was his or her personal responsibility to report on all new drugs being offered to treat age-related macular degeneration.”
The problem is not the conversation; the problem is accepting the money.
I have a lot of respect for Strauss, who spent 25 years as a science writer and columnist at The Globe and Mail. I agree that reporters who accepted the money would not feel bound to write about macular degeneration, but these interviews can have a more insidious effect. They can sensitize reporters to a story that is about to break, so they are more likely to take a look at it.
Further, the mere fact that Strauss “wondered about the nature of this offer” suggests that it was at least a bit dubious. And in my view, that should have been enough for Strauss and the CSWA to reject the offer, rather than pass it on to members. By passing this offer along to its members, CSWA endorsed it. And it shouldn’t have. Science writers’ organizations should be scrupulous about adhering to the highest journalism standards.
My rule would go something like this: If you have to ask whether an offer is a little shaky, then it probably is.