17 January 2010

The Fourth Estate and Uncomfortable Questions

Today's NY Times has a timely column by its Public Editor, Clark Hoyt, on conflicts of interest among sources used in news stories and who publish on the NY Time op-ed pages. The column details recent instances where financial interests were not disclosed (either to the NYT or to its readers). Hoyt notes:

These examples have resulted in five embarrassing editors’ notes in the last two months — two of them last week — each of them saying readers should have been informed of the undisclosed interest. And on Thursday, the standards editor sent Times journalists a memo urging them to be “constantly alert” to the outside interests of expert sources. The cases raised timeless issues for journalists and sources about what readers have a right to know and whose responsibility it is to find it out or disclose it.

The ideal expert source is entirely independent, with no stake in an outcome. But in reality, the most informed sources often have involvements, which is why they know what they know. Readers are entitled to disclosure so they can decide if there is a conflict that would affect the credibility of the information.

A search of the NYT archives over the past 12 months for -- Rajendra + Pachauri -- results in 677 mentions. I can't find one that discusses or discloses his considerable financial interests as related to his frequent policy advocacy. The atmospheric and environmental sciences are at the frontier with respect to conflicts of interest (as I wrote in 2003 for the NRC, PDF) so it is perhaps not too surprising that these issues are only now emerging.

However, now that Pachauri's conflicts and interests are documented, real and being discussed openly in the media, the US media (not just the NYT) ought to be on this. There is a big, though uncomfortable, story here. If the major media were on it, then it would help the climate science community to clean up its act. Asking uncomfortable questions of those in power is one of the jobs of the Fourth Estate, right?