Let’s talk about journalism ethics — mine and HuffPost’s

Tamar Haspel

Last week, HuffPost published a hit piece about me. It was about conflicts of interest, and I think it’s an excellent opportunity to talk about ethics in journalism.

If you read the piece, you might not know that I have a conflict-of-interest policy that’s vetted by top media ethicists, and that I scrupulously follow their advice. You might also not know that you can read about my participation in the events the story mentions on my very own website, because there wasn’t a link to that page where I disclose every job I’m hired to do. You might have missed the fact that all work I did with people and groups with undisclosed industry funding happened before that funding was revealed — I had no way of knowing about it, which is the problem with undisclosed funding. You wouldn’t know that I’ve never, in my entire career, been on an ag industry junket. You certainly wouldn’t know that I chose to participate in the mentioned event sponsored by GMO Answers without pay, specifically to make the point that echo chambers where industry uses the imprimatur of media outlets like Scientific American to give a veneer of disinterestedness are a really bad idea. Other panelists made similar points. I’m afraid we made the Ketchum representative cry.

The author, Paul Thacker, knew all of that (except the crying part), but chose to mislead, mischaracterize, and omit, because what I actually do doesn’t suit his agenda. Sure, call a conference put on by a not-for-profit an “industry junket.” Call asking a question on an industry website “enthusiastically promoting” a PR campaign. Call a journalist one-sided and just leave out the other side. But that’s not even the problem. Every field has trolls who cherry-pick and mislead in order to discredit people who disagree with them; it’s the modern world and we have to deal with it. Thacker’s gonna thack.

The real problem is HuffPost. Executive editor Hillary Frey knows all that, too (even the crying part), because I told her, but she’s content to let the piece stand as written. Kate Sheppard and Victor Brand know it too; Frey copied them on the correspondence.

So, yes, let’s talk about journalism ethics. On what ethical planet is it OK to publish a piece accusing me of conflicts of interest without mentioning, much less linking to, my public COI policy, which clearly explains the kinds of jobs I’ll accept and the ones I won’t, and lays out the rationale? Or to omit that I consult with media ethicists to figure those things out?

On that ethical planet, it’s apparently totally fine to paint me as pro-industry by simply leaving out every single one of my columns and public comments that are critical of it. Readers shouldn’t know about my regular tweets about the problems with dicamba, or that time I called Monsanto unethical, or when I blamed them for glyphosate-resistant weeds or when I pleaded for pro-GMOers to stop calling anti-GMOers “anti-science,” or when I called for the dismantling of the entire commodity support system. I could go on.

Also on that ethical planet, a years-long record of nasty subtweets doesn’t raise questions about the disinterestedness of the author. And, by all means, call a journalist “wrong” if you can find someone, somewhere, who disagrees with her.

I could go on. (And I do, ad nauseam, in the notes below.)

There are accusations that I absolutely plead guilty to, though. I think GMOs are safe to eat, and that glyphosate is safer than the herbicides it replaced. I believe people are more likely to fear chemicals too much than not enough. I submitted a question about releasing results of safety trials to an industry website. I said I was looking forward to meeting someone from Monsanto. I disagreed with Walter Willett about potatoes.

I want to talk about my ethical planet, which I would very much like to have a public conversation about. I’ve been trying to engage people on the issue of ethics guidelines for freelance journalists for years, with very little success. There aren’t any community standards, so each of us is out on our own, trying to figure out how to navigate a landscape of competing interests.

I think discourse benefits when journalists can participate in conferences and events out there in public. But how can a freelancer who isn’t independently wealthy, and doesn’t have a paycheck and expense account, do that while preserving journalistic objectivity? That’s the central question in crafting guidelines about when it’s OK to accept money, and when it isn’t. There are some easy questions: no industry junkets or events. But what if a university wants to hire you to speak at a conference that gets partial underwriting from, say, an NGO, a regulatory agency, and an industry group? That’s a harder question, and it describes many of the invitations I get. I take it case by case, and I disclose all the invitations I accept, and the rationale for accepting them. I’ve written about that at some length in the links I’ve included here, and the links in those links.

Do you disagree with some of my decisions? One of the reasons I do everything in the bright light of day is to invite that disagreement. The answers aren’t easy, and we should be putting our heads together.

And while we’re out here in the open talking about ethics, I’d sure like to ask HuffPost editors to talk about theirs. In my correspondence with them, none of the ommissions and mischaracterizations in the Thacker piece appear to have given any of them pause, either about the accuracy of the piece or the agenda of the writer. Nah, we’re good with it, was essentially what Frey told me. Sure, maybe she’d consider linking to some of the things I mentioned, but only if they noted that the additions were mine — emphatically not hers.

Frey, Brand, and Sheppard all know that a piece like this will live forever, and the damage it will do to me is literally incalculable. I have no idea who will see it and decide they’re not interested in my work. They’re good with that, too.

But the harm they do goes much farther; the bigger problem is the chilling effect on journalism. When the conversation moves away from the issues and starts being a no-holds-barred attack on the credibility of decent people, we all lose. Over the past year or so, I’ve backed away from writing about agriculture and focused more on human nutrition, in part because it’s just not worth dealing with the thackers (although nutrition’s got them too). And I’m not the only one.

Every time HuffPost editors give a platform to scurrilous attacks, they discourage responsible journalists from tackling controversial issues. And that’s where discourse goes to die.

When Lydia Polgreen left the New York Times to take over HuffPost, I think a lot of us in the field hoped she’d bring those standards with her. I, of course, have a very particular reason to be disappointed. But I think we all should be.

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NOTES ON SPECIFICS FROM THE PIECE:

HUFFPOST: “In her column, she has regularly promoted genetically modified foods and downplayed the dangers of chemicals, even quoting from Ketchum and the third-party scientists that agrichemical companies promote to offer a contrary take. Those companies have in turn amplified Haspel’s work and raised her profile.”

I am most definitely enthusiastic about some GMOs, both the ones out in the world and the ones in development. I’m wildly in favor of yeasts that can generate omega-3 fats, which can substitute for wild-caught fish oil in fish feed. Also the papaya that’s resistant to ringspot virus. But I specifically call out the problem with Roundup Ready and Bt — that their advantages accrue primarily to commodity farmers and agribusiness (although there are some environmental advantages to those crops, too), and that association has tarred all GMOs. As herbicide-resistant weeds became a bigger and bigger problem, I took a dimmer view of that trait, as I said here.

As for my quoting from Ketchum, Thacker refers to a piece of consumer research they did, having nothing to do with GMOs, so let’s do that next.

HUFFPOST: “A January 2016 Haspel column cites Ketchum’s research to suggest that the food movement — a developing concept that essentially argues activists and young foodies are seeking healthier, locally, and more responsibly grown food — isn’t much of a movement at all and that most people aren’t overly concerned about GMOs and pesticides. … the journalist [me] misconstrued the Ketchum study itself. In fact, PR Week reached the opposite conclusion from Haspel’s, deeming the study as evidence that food evangelists could no longer be considered a small group, as their numbers had increased by 10% in just two years.”

Here’s what I actually wrote: “The public relations firm Ketchum, which works extensively with the food industry, has tried to pinpoint the kind of consumer we think of as part of the food movement: someone who regularly and publicly recommends or critiques foods or agricultural practices. The firm came up with a definition using those criteria and found that, in 2015, 14 percent of the population met them, up from 11 percent two years earlier. The Ketchum study indicates that food concerns among consumers are rising, something just about everyone I’ve spoken to believes to be true. But hard data on the foods that people actually buy indicate that old habits die hard.”

According to the author, I “misconstrued” it, because somebody else thought the growth part is more important than the 14% part.

HUFFPOST “Folta was putting together one of the many industry-funded junkets he helped organize to discuss GMOs and the pesticide glyphosate. Haspel was one of his favorite speakers”

If you read the piece carefully, you see that it actually includes the fact that Folta’s ties to Monsanto were revealed after the event I spoke at (as were those of Academics Review and Bruce Chassey); it’s telling that this makes no difference to the author or HuffPost; I’m still accused of participating with scientists and groups with ties to Monsanto. I worked with none of the people or groups after the disclosure (the events I participated in were in 2014 and May of 2015). From where I sat, they were an independent scientist and a non-profit (Genetic Literacy Project) which accepted no industry funding. I don’t remember being aware of Academics Review at the time.

I’ll add that no one has a right to be angrier at undisclosed industry funding than the journalists who unknowingly participated in events that were later revealed to have industry ties, because it opens us up to attacks just like this one.

HUFFPOST: “A few months after the conference [where I worked with Folta], The New York Times exposed Folta in a Sept. 5, 2015, front-page story for hiding his financial ties to Monsanto and becoming part of the company’s lobbying campaign. Haspel later emailed a bizarre apology to Folta: “I am very sorry for what you’ve gone through, and it’s distressing when mean-spirited, partisan attacks overshadow the real issues — both on the science and on the transparency, both of which are so important.”

The aim here is clear; to imply that I thought the NYTimes story was a mean-spirited, partisan attack (and was made clearer in the e-mail Thacker wrote to me, in which he asked: “Can you explain what is “partisan” about the New York Times?”). I thought the Times story was quite fair, but other attacks on Folta, which sometimes extended to threats of violence to him and his family, were horrible. I don’t think it’s bizarre to sympathize with that. I guess I think it would be bizarre not to.

HUFFPOST: “She did not disclose that one of her sources, Keith Solomon, was a consultant for Monsanto who had previously been criticized for his work defending another crop science giant, Syngenta, on the pesticide atrazine. After Haspel’s column, Solomon was later accused of having Monsanto ghostwrite studies for him and other scientists on glyphosate.”

All of Solomon’s work for Monsanto that I know of was published in 2016 (and later), after my column ran. At the time I wrote the column, in 2015, he didn’t include the company as a funding source on the list on his CV. I know because I checked.

Perhaps more importantly, I think it’s reasonable to assume that Thacker went through all my work with a fine-tooth comb to find examples of my citing industry sources without designating them as such. That’s what he came up with.

HUFFPOST: “When Ketchum partnered with Scientific American in 2016 to host discussions on science communications, HuffPost reported that Haspel was one of the three journalists chosen to speak on a panel.”

I agreed to participate before I knew of Ketchum’s involvement. As Thacker knows, because he asked me about this before, I nevertheless chose to go there — without pay or expense money — because I thought it was important to talk about how counterproductive it was for industry to use an imprimatur like Scientific American to give a veneer of disinterestedness to a pro-biotech event. If Thacker watched the livestream (as I hope he did, since he was very interested in the panel), he knows that I was furious. I asked for anyone in the audience who was skeptical of GMOs to raise their hands. Maybe 5 hands went up, in a room with maybe 100 people (that I recall). Then I talked about echo chambers. The Ketchum representative was literally in tears afterward.

HUFFPOST: “Haspel has also faced criticism over the years for her attendance at industry junkets — trips where industry organizations pay reporters’ expenses and sometimes offer speaking fees — such as those of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, Center for Food Integrity and International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Operations. This raised alarms among watchdogs.”

Let’s take these one by one.

The NC Biotechnology Center is funded primarily by the state of North Carolina (two-thirds, according to its latest annual report), and was one of the underwriters of a conference put on by North Carolina State University. I was asked to moderate a panel on GMO labeling, and accepted the work contingent on NC State’s ensuring that at least one bona fide GMO opponent was on the panel, as the panel they’d assembled had none. We ended up with two: EWG’s Scott Faber and Consumers Union’s Michael Hansen (who went out of his way, after the panel, to say that I had been a very fair moderator).

The Center for Food Integrity is a not-for-profit whose members include food system stakeholders across the spectrum; farmers, NGOs, universities, restaurants, food manufacturers, and agribusinesses. The list of members is here. The group advocates for transparency in the food system.

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (that’s the right name) is a not-for-profit that works to bring appropriate biotech to Africa’s farmers. It has a wide range of funders, including the USDA, USAID, agribusiness, banks, and NGOs. They were one of the sponsors of a conference put on by the Kenyan government. I spoke (as I often do) about the importance of examining your own biases, and how important that is for public discourse.

But there’s something more important here. First, as with the accusations about sources, you know Thacker looked for the most damning “junkets” he could find. That’s what he came up with. And he knew about them because I disclosed them.

But what’s most telling here is the (sort of) passive voice. “Haspel has also faced criticism over the years …” The criticism has come, as far as I can tell, nearly exclusively from Thacker and US RIght to Know, and like-minded people and groups who tap into their work. But this graf gives the impression that he’s simply repeating things other people say, in the attempt to imply that there’s some kind of broad-based agreement that I have done wrong.

It’s worth noting that some of the work Thacker and his friends at USRTK have done has revealed important information about undisclosed funding and industry’s interference in research, but I don’t think secret documents are as compelling when they reveal that a journalist on the ag beat says she was looking forward to meeting someone from Monsanto.

HUFFPOST “This is definitely a new kind of journalism,” said investigative reporter James B. Steele, who has written articles about Monsanto. Haspel’s junkets remind him of the problems in travel writing, where many of the reporters unethically take handouts from hotels, restaurants and cruise ships and then write about the products.”

Thacker apparently called other journalists and described my behavior in the same terms he used in this piece. Small wonder they condemn it.

HUFFPOST: “Haspel did not respond to several questions, but she sent a statement saying she lists her speaking gigs and has written columns critical of the industry. She noted that the author of this piece has sent tweets critical of her writing and stated, “I’m perfectly happy to have readers infer my views from my writing and public comment; but it has to be the whole body of my work.”

I didn’t answer his specific questions because they were of the “when did you stop beating your wife” variety: “Why did you think it was appropriate to promote and participate in a Monsanto PR campaign … ?” I also didn’t answer specific question because I make sure to disclose everything I do; answers are there for all the world to see.

HUFFPOST “Tamar tries to sell herself as this simple oyster farmer, but she clearly leans toward industry,” said Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist at Consumer Reports. “She uses science as a cudgel: ‘Science says X, and anyone who says differently is not being scientific.’”

At last, a little levity. A simple oyster farmer! That’s the first time I’ve been accused of hiding my light under a bushel. But the irony is that I wrote a column lambasting the pro-GMO crowd for doing exactly what Hansen says I do — but in reality take great pains not to do.

HuffPost was also aware that Thacker has a years-long record of critical, and often nasty, public comments about me (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, etc.), but that didn’t seem to raise any questions about his disinterestedness.

If I’ve missed anything, I am, as always, happy to answer any good-faith questions.

I didn’t want to do this. Responding to charges like this feels dirty (I am not a crook!), and I haven’t done it in the past. I certainly wasn’t going to respond on HuffPost. But too many people saw this, and actually gave it credence, for me to let it stand unanswered.

I’ll stop now. If you’ve read this far, and you think the piece was indeed unfair, I’d sure appreciate it if you’d consider sharing your thoughts with HuffPost executive editor Hillary Frey (she’s @hilella on twitter; I won’t post her e-mail because she doesn’t, but it’s not hard to contact HuffPost).

Thanks for listening.

PS — After getting pressure from social media, HuffPost editor Victor Brand e-mailed me to tell me they’d added a link to my COI policy. Mighty white of him.

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 by the author.

Tamar Haspel

Written by

Oyster farmer. James Beard award-winning Washington Post columnist. General nuisance.

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