It’s hard to know what to add to the current row between National Geographic and the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization often used as a source by the media. Most of the dirty laundry is already hanging on the EWG blog, and it stinks of a bizarre fight between people who usually share the same corner. What is worse, it detracts from other, more useful considerations of the work in question.
The squabble stems from “The Pollution Within,” an article by David E. Duncan in the October issue of National Geographic. In this “journey of chemical self-discovery,” Duncan subjects himself to a series of highly refined (and expensive) medical tests to screen for 320 potentially toxic chemicals he “might have picked up” in the course of leading a relatively normal American life. It is a warning about the ambient dangers, small and large, of living in an industrial, consumer-driven world. And it is exactly the kind of message the EWG has been pushing for the last two decades.
Now, the EWG is angry it didn’t get credit for help it gave Duncan and his editors during their reporting and fact-checking processes. As the magazine hit newsstands last week, the EWG alleged on its blog that Duncan’s article made “extensive use” of its “intellectual property” without giving proper attribution. Specifically, it complains that Duncan, while reporting, relied on protocols the EWG developed during “Body Burden,” a series of studies the group has led since 2000, which examine levels of toxicity in 72 individuals. The quarrelsome headline of the September 26 post asks, “Do National Geographic and freelancer David Duncan have an integrity problem?”
That was the beginning of the plaint that spills out for thousands of words on the EWG blog, but it was not the beginning of the drama. Before Duncan’s story was published, EWG officials read a complete digital copy on the author’s Web site, according to Tim Appenzeller, National Geographic’s science editor. Members of the EWG wasted no time in calling Duncan to express their dismay, and the author quickly passed on their complaints to Appenzeller and Dennis Dimick, the magazine’s environment editor. In an attempt to redress the problem, Appenzeller and Dimick sent a letter to the EWG on September 19, acknowledging the group’s assistance and admitting the magazine was “remiss in not mentioning your organization in print.”
No harm no foul, right? Wrong. A couple of days later, Appenzeller and Dimick received a short note from the EWG saying it would soon respond to their letter. For nearly a week, they heard nothing more, until the EWG accused Duncan and National Geographic of violating journalistic ethics on its blog. When the blog entry appeared, it included a copy of the September 19 letter from Appenzeller and Dimick.
Apparently, the editors’ apology wasn’t good enough, and if nothing else, the pugnacious tone of the blog was enough to ruffle Duncan’s feathers. The author posted a comment on the Web site the next morning, shaming the group for using “vim and vitriol better left to true enemies and evil doers.” But like his editors before him, Duncan also expressed regret for excluding the group in print, and he acknowledged the assistance it furnished.
Still, for nearly a week, Duncan and the group continued to snipe at each other on the blog (with some third party involvement), but the argument devolved into repetitious attacks that show no sign of resolution.
Duncan should have given a passing mention to the EWG, at least for transparency’s sake. An early draft did contain a quote from the EWG, which Appenzeller clipped “because it didn’t advance the story … and their material was not unique.” But the magazine has already admitted its mistakes, and there really is no lapse of integrity given Duncan’s and his editors’ acknowledgment of the EWG’s complaints. According to Appenzeller, the online version of “The Pollution Within” will include a sentence highlighting the EWG’s contributions in the field of bio-monitoring. And Duncan, in one of his two comments on the EWG blog, wrote that he would post an apology on his own Web site: “But I won’t post anything as long as my photograph is up on your site, and I am depicted as some sort of arch-villain of the press taking advantage of the unwitting sources.”