During the investigation and subsequent collapse of the Coca-Cola front group Global Energy Balance Network, the New York Times and Associated Press discovered that prominent university professors working on obesity issues had been funded by The Coca-Cola Company.
This is not just a public health scandal. It is a journalistic one as well.
Journalists have quoted two of these professors at least 30 times in news articles, after the professors had received their Coca-Cola funding, but without mentioning that funding in their articles. Many of the news outlets that published these articles are influential, such as The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Boston Globe, The Atlantic Monthly, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek and National Public Radio.
It is a conflict of interest for professors working on obesity issues to accept funding from Coca-Cola. There is now substantial medical evidence that soda and the soda industry – and especially Coca-Cola and PepsiCo – are in part responsible for our nation’s obesity epidemic, and increase the incidence of diabetes and heart disease.
If a professor takes money from one of these soda companies, that is crucial context for their views on obesity, and journalists disserve their readers by failing to report it. Readers need to know who pays sources to evaluate the legitimacy and biases of these sources.
The net effect of quoting these professors without disclosing their Coca-Cola funding is to unfairly enhance their credibility, while undermining the credibility of public health and consumer advocates.
This short report reviews news coverage quoting two leaders of the Coca-Cola front group Global Energy Balance Network: Professors James O. Hill and Steven N. Blair.
James O. Hill was president of the Global Energy Balance Network. He is a professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Colorado, and director of their Center for Human Nutrition. According to Associated Press, Professor Hill wrote privately to a Coca-Cola executive, “I want to help your company avoid the image of being a problem in peoples’ lives and back to being a company that brings important and fun things to them.”
According to the New York Times, Coca-Cola “last year gave an ‘unrestricted monetary gift’ of $1 million to the University of Colorado Foundation … the university said that Coca-Cola had provided the money ‘for the purposes of funding’ the Global Energy Balance Network.”
According to Associated Press, “Since 2010, Coke said it gave $550,000 to Hill that was unrelated to the [Global Energy Balance Network] group. A big part of that was research he and others were involved with, but the figure also covers travel expenses and fees for speaking engagements and other work.”
Steven N. Blair was vice president of the Global Energy Balance Network. He is a professor at the Arnold School of Public Health, in the departments of exercise science and epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of South Carolina. According to the New York Times, when Professor Blair was announcing the Global Energy Balance Network, he made the following incorrect claim: “Most of the focus in the popular media and in the scientific press is, ‘Oh they’re eating too much, eating too much, eating too much’ — blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks and so on… And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”
According to the New York Times, “Dr. Blair had received more than $3.5 million in funding from Coke for research projects since 2008.”
Following is a list of 30 news articles written after Professors Hill and Blair received funding from Coca-Cola (after January 1, 2011 for Hill, and January 1, 2009 for Blair) in which journalists failed to disclose that Professors Hill and Blair were funded by Coca-Cola.
- Los Angeles Times: Steps, Time, Distance: However Measured, Walking Can Reach Health Goals. By Mary MacVean, September 6, 2013.
- Los Angeles Times: ‘Fed Up’ Documentary Lays Blame for American Obesity on Food Industry. By Mary MacVean, May 9, 2014.
- Los Angeles Times: Obesity Rates in U.S. Appear to Be Finally Leveling Off. By Shari Roan, January 17, 2012.
- Los Angeles Times: Halloween’s Dilemma: Candy vs. Healthful Treats. By Karen Ravn, October 31, 2011.
- Los Angeles Times: Swimming with the Fittest? By Judy Foreman, July 19, 2010.
- Los Angeles Times: Stay Moving, Not Still. By Jeannine Stein, July 13, 2009.
- Los Angeles Times: Cities Try To Cut The Fat With Weight-Loss Programs. By Karen Ravn, January 31, 2011.
- USA Today: Retirement: The Payoffs of an Active Lifestyle. By Nanci Hellmich, April 16, 2015.
- USA Today: Holiday Weight Gain Isn’t Inevitable. By Nanci Hellmich, December 2, 2013.
- USA Today: Flex Your Metabolism and Melt Off Pounds. By Nanci Hellmich, August 19, 2013.
- USA Today: Adidas MiCoach, Nike+, Sensor Devices Get People Exercising. By Janice Lloyd, January 27, 2010.
- USA Today: Americans Fighting Fat, But Odds Stacked Against Them. By Nanci Hellmich, November 5, 2012.
- National Public Radio (NPR): How We Store Food at Home Could Be Linked to How Much We Eat. By Angus Chen, May 19, 2015.
- National Public Radio (NPR): Exercise Studies Find Good News For the Knees. By Allison Aubrey, September 5, 2009.
- National Public Radio (NPR): Sitting All Day: Worse For You Than You Might Think. By Patti Neighmond, April 25, 2011.
- U.S. News and World Report: What Do Coloradans Know About Fitness That You Don’t? By Elisa Zied, October 8, 2013.
- U.S. News and World Report: How to Sit Less and Move More. By Elisa Zied, September 11, 2013.
- Boston Globe: Want to Get in Shape? Just Move! By Gareth Cook, January 22, 2012.
- Boston Globe: Healthy Steps. By Deborah Kotz, June 27, 2011.
- The Atlantic Monthly: How Obesity Became a Disease. By Harriet Brown, March 24, 2015.
- Forbes: The 6 Weight-Loss Tips That Science Actually Knows Work. By Alice G. Walton, September 4, 2013.
- Forbes: How A Model Figured Out Childhood Obesity. By Trevor Butterworth, August 22, 2013.
- Newsweek: Viagra the New Weight Loss Pill? By Trevor Butterworth, January 29, 2013.
- The Atlantic Monthly: The Perfected Self. By David H. Freedman, June 2012.
- New York Times: Tossing Out the Diet and Embracing the Fat. By Mandy Katz, July 15, 2009.
- Washington Post: Is It Possible To Be Fit and Fat? By Rachael Rattner and Live Science, December 16, 2013.
- Associated Press (AP): Study Says Even Being a Bit Overweight Is Risky. By Stephanie Nano, December 1, 2010.
- Denver Post: Combating Obesity on Several Fronts Helps Reverse Trend in Colorado. By Ally Marotti, August 7, 2013.
- Charleston Post and Courier: Study Links Obesity to Work. By David Slade, May 28, 2011.
- Peoria Journal-Star: Sedentary Behavior Is a Health Risk That Needs to Be Addressed at All Ages. By Steve Tarter, July 24, 2015.
Why did so many reporters and news outlets fail to disclose the conflicts of interest of these two prominent professors?
How can we prevent similar journalistic failures in the future? One answer is clear: reporters and editors must be on their guard for corporate-funded professors who pose as issue experts but are really acting as mouthpieces for food companies like Coca-Cola.
Readers, too, should be aware that some influential news outlets do not always disclose their sources’ conflicts of interest, which makes their coverage of food and agriculture issues less fair and credible. It gives readers a legitimate reason to be skeptical of some mainstream media coverage of food and agriculture issues because of pro-industry biases sometimes contained in it.
In November, we wrote a similar report about how journalists failed to disclose sources’ ties to the agrichemical giant Monsanto. Both of these reports highlight the same problem: academics who appear in the media as independent sources when they are actually taking money from companies to promote particular views. Journalists have a responsibility to know and to reveal if their sources are working on behalf of industry.