When a news outlet reports on a study, should reporters state in every case who funded the study? NPR public editor Elizabeth Jensen raised that interesting issue in a recent public editor column.
That concern came up when a reader had questions about an NPR story that reported on a study about the carbon footprint of meal kit delivery services, she explained. The reader was curious if any vested interests had financially supported the study.
“It’s helpful for readers and listeners to know that the default NPR practice is to flag conflicts when they are potentially problematic, and that they can assume that if the funders aren’t listed, it is because the reporters have made a judgment that the funding does not potentially bias the results,” Jensen argued.
Because, as Jensen explained, many journal studies may end up hidden behind a paywall, readers can’t always find the source material. “As a result, readers who don’t have access to the journals (or don’t want to pay) must depend on the journalists to tell them whether the funding of a study raises a potential conflict,” she reported.
Jensen quoted NPR domestic health editor Joe Neel as saying NPR reporters almost always ask about study funding and report any potential conflicts. The problem with always listing every funder is the time or space constraints, he explained. “If there’s no clear opportunity for conflict there, we may not potentially report it,” he told Jensen.
iMediaEthics wrote to NPR to ask if NPR will establish any official practice or policy for identifying conflicts of interest or funders for studies, or if NPR will continue with its current practice; an NPR spokesperson pointed to Neel’s comments above to Jensen. Jensen reported:
“It’s incumbent upon the reporter to ask about the funding of every study,” he said, and NPR’s reporters do so about 95% of the time, he guesses. And when the reporters determine that the funding is relevant — “when it’s our judgment that the funding could have biased the result or that people should know about it” — the information is included, he said.