#Sugartax: Ombudsman weighs in on IRR, Coca-Cola research debate

Following an accusation of unethical behaviour levelled at Fin24 by Frans Cronjé, the CEO of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), I have asked Professor George Claassen, media ethics scholar and ombudsman for Media24's community newspapers, to assess and adjudicate our coverage of the Coca-Cola-sponsored research into taxing sugar-sweetened beverages conducted by the IRR. Today we publish both pieces by Cronjé and Claassen. - Adriaan Basson, editor.

Claassen, in this opinion piece, looks at how credible and reliable science should work and how trustworthy and credible media should function.

Can you trust industry-funded research – and do sponsors bear influence to get the answers they want? - Prof George Claassen

The research undertaken by the South African Institute for Race Relations (IRR), set out as a policy paper, A stealth tax, not a health tax, has come under fire from the media because the study was funded by the Coca-Cola Company.

Why should this be a problem? And why does the IRR now accuse the media of hypocrisy for casting doubt on the fact that a company with a direct interest in the sugar-tax introduced by Treasury be the funder of the IRR’s study?

Two aspects from Fin24’s report of 7 December, EXPOSED: Coca-Cola bankrolls IRR research on sugary tax in SA, and the IRR’s reaction to it, are clearly relevant in the debate: firstly, how credible and reliable science should work, and, secondly, how trustworthy and credible media should function.

Why should science be trusted?

The IRR works inter alia in the field of science where certain clear rules apply. I want to quote the highly regarded authors Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their excellent analysis of how a handful of scientists, used as political tools by lobbyists and interest groups in the USA, have over years obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke, acid rain, climate change, the ozone hole and other contentious matters. What they warned about in 2010 in their book Merchants of Doubt, unfortunately raises its head again in the anti-science appointments made by President-elect Donald Trump – and signs of that are also visible in the way the IRR is protesting its innocence for undertaking a research study on the sugar-tax where there clearly is a conflict of interest with Coca-Cola as sponsor.

Oreskes and Conway analyse the way some scientists, in the pockets of politicians, pressure and interest groups, as well as special funders, have become peddlers of doubt about credible science. The authors refer to the sociologist Michael Smithson who pointed out that all social relationships are trust relations. “We must trust other people to do things for us that we can’t or don’t want to do ourselves ... We can cook our own food, clean our own homes, do our own taxes, wash our own cars, even school our own children. By we cannot do our own science,” they emphasise.

But because of this lack of expertise on many matters, “we must trust our scientific experts on matters of science, because there isn’t a workable alternative,” Oreskes and Conway write. “And because scientists are (in most cases) licensed, we need to pay attention to who the experts actually are – by asking questions about their credentials, their past and current research, the venues in which they are subjecting their claims to scrutiny, and the sources of financial support they are receiving” (my emphasis).

Ben Goldacre, the Oxford University-based scientist and nemesis of pseudoscientific thinking, points out in his important work, Bad Pharma, that studies funded by industry are more likely to produce a positive, flattering result than independently-funded studies. He refers to a study of 2010 by researchers from Harvard and Toronto who found that in five hundred trials “85 per cent of the industry-funded studies were positive, but only 50 per cent of the government-funded trials were. That’s a very significant difference.”

The IRR emphasises that it “has rigorous internal editorial guidelines. Funders have no say at all over policy recommendations or how funding is used. There is an impenetrable Chinese wall between our sales and fundraising staff, and our policy writers and researchers.” Yet, the IRR should have taken notice of researchers warning that funding of scientific studies by industry cast doubt on the veracity of findings: “In fact, this issue of negative results that go missing in action cuts almost every corner of science. It distorts findings in fields as diverse as brain imaging and economics, it makes a mockery of all our efforts to exclude bias from our studies...,” writes Goldacre. His first book, Bad Science, has become a work every member of the public who wants to understand the claims made by lobbyists, pressure and interest groups, quacks and pseudoscientists, should read.

Why should the media be trusted?

In the wake of fake news and the rise of citizen journalism that in preliminary reports have clearly had an influence on the election of Trump as president, it is a valid question. The IRR accuses the media of hypocrisy and writes: “What Media24 partly relied on in attempting to exploit the point of non-disclosure is that we would not reveal pricing or other details. This, we think, is fair – and, again, uncontroversial – as the policy-funding field is competitive and we do not want our competitors to know how we finance our work. It is the equivalent of asking Media24 to reveal in detail the extent to which its newspapers (and associated companies) rely on government funding (or regulatory protections) in order to suggest that it is dependent on the state and needs to take a pro-government line on certain policy matters. We know that Media24 receives extensive state income, both directly and indirectly, though not how much – but we also know that its editorial policies should prevent such funding from influencing the content of its journalism.”

The fact is that by accepting government advertising or any advertising for that matter, the media have very strict policies in their ethical codes of conduct that the independence of the editorial side would not be encroached upon and endangered. Unfortunately that does not always happen as the adverse influence of advertisers and marketers has over the past two decades become a very real concern of editors and their journalists who want to protect their independence to report on matters fearlessly and without interference. Recent threatening and even real steps by various sectors of the ANC government to withdraw advertising from “unfriendly” media who expose corruption and incompetency, are examples of why the media’s independence and freedom of expression, protected in section 16 of the Constitution, are so vital in a true democracy.

One of the four pillars of Media24’s internal ethical code of conduct clearly states its publications, whether print or electronic, are “independent of the government at all levels, as well as any pressure and or interest group.” The code goes further: “We support a business environment in which an independent media system can compete and grow. This also means that a strict policy of editorial independence is followed in which advertising, promotion and management may not interfere with the editorial process that can negatively affect the editorial credibility and independence of the newspaper or other form of publication.”

Furthermore, in section 3 of this code, the following is clearly stated:

“Reporters and photographers of Media24 should be free of obligations to any pressure group, interest group and political party. Their only obligation should be to the public's right to know. This also means that the editorial independence may not be endangered or encroached upon by the advertising or promotional sections of the paper or by the newspaper’s management prescribing to editors about editorial content. This newspaper’s editorial content is solely guided by the principles of ethical journalism as determined by this code and the ethical code of conduct of the South African Pressombudsman and must be protected at all times against non-editorial interference that can harm the paper’s independence and its credibility with its readers.”

Similarly, the South African Press Council’s Code clearly emphasises the independence of the press and electronic media in section 2 of its code under the heading, Independence and Conflicts of Interest:

2.1. The media shall not allow commercial, political, personal or other non-professional considerations to influence or slant reporting. Conflicts of interest must be avoided, as well as arrangements or practices that could lead audiences to doubt the media's independence and professionalism.
2.2. The media shall not accept a bribe, gift or any other benefit where this  is intended or likely to influence coverage.
2.3. The media shall indicate clearly when an outside organisation has contributed to the cost of newsgathering.
2.4. Editorial material shall be kept clearly distinct from advertising and sponsored content.

In light of numerous studies, as pointed out by Goldacre and other scientists, I do not have any doubt that the IRR as research institution should not have accepted to undertake a study where the results would have had the serious possibility of being tainted by a pressure or interest group who funded the study. And it should have declared that funding openly and transparently from the beginning. On 2 November this year, Fin24 reported on “alleged leaked emails” which exposed the Coca-Cola Company’s “worldwide war against sugar taxes on cold drinks, which is also on the cards for South Africa.”

Fin24 also wrote that the “hactivist site DC Leaks recently revealed Coca-Cola’s strategy to tackle public health policies at the local, state, national and international levels. These include trying to influence reporters, keeping a close watch on social media influencers and lobbying government.”

Transparent science has been replacing the dubious and murky world that existed in research before Goldacre’s books, and especially Bad Pharma were published. A conflict of interest is defined by Goldacre in Bad Pharma as “when you have some kind of financial, personal, or ideological involvement that an outsider might reasonably think could affect your reasoning”.  

Boyce Rensberger, a former director of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge stressed the importance of evidence in believing any claim in science. When evidence is absent, it cannot be replaced with belief. “Balanced coverage of science does not mean giving equal weight to both sides of an argument. It means apportioning weight according to the balance of evidence.” Rensberger also emphasised the similarity between the goals of journalists and scientists: “Journalists and scientists espouse similar goals. Both seek truth and want to make it known. Both devote considerable energy to guard against being misled. Both observe a discipline of verifying information. Both insist that society allow them freedom to pursue investigations wherever they lead.”

The IRR has clearly reneged on the goal of being a credible institution in the field of science by allowing it to be drawn into the campaigns of a company whose interests are clearly in conflict with the subject of research being undertaken.

* Prof George Claassen teaches Science and Technology Communication and Media Ethics at the University of Stellenbosch, is the ombudsman of Media24’s Community Press Division, and a board member of the international Organization of Newsombudsmen and Readers’ Editors.

Read more on the sugary tax

Treasury: Sugary beverages tax is not a stealth tax
Coca-Cola explains the sour side of a sugary tax on SSBs
Why is SA ignoring the abundance of sugary substitutes?
Why SA should resist power of Big Sugar to undermine public health
Sugar tax alone can't solve health problems - expert
How sugar tax will create future taxpayers
Sugar tax flaws – ‘Mathematical model’ based on speculation, assumption
Sugar tax could cause over 70 000 job losses - report

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