Science Journalism in a Can

Are pre-packaged science stories better than none at all?

Last week, the The Washington Post’s Health section carried a lead story about AIDS immunology research being spearheaded by a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, Bruce Walker, whom it introduced in the third paragraph. At the end of the piece, an editor’s note disclosed that “A longer version of this story ran in Proto, a quarterly biomedical magazine published by Massachusetts General Hospital.” The byline identifies the writer, Charles Slack, as being “Special to The Washington Post.”

“What gives?” Post media reporter Howard Kurtz rightly asked on Monday:

Health Editor Frances Stead Sellers, who obtained the piece without charge, says Proto is “one of the best biomedical magazines,” that the article was by an established freelancer and that she was transparent about the story’s origin. “The cure for a perceived conflict is disclosure… . I felt with this piece I was bringing something very interesting to readers,” she says.

The magazine is produced by Time Inc. Content Solutions, where spokeswoman Carrie Jones says the hospital gets to review all copy and “to bask in the reflected glory” of a high-quality publication.

Sellers, who had run an earlier piece from Proto, says early-retirement buyouts at The Post have cut the weekly section’s full-time staff from four to none, forcing her to rely heavily on freelancers. “If I had a whole bundle of reporters, I wouldn’t be thinking of doing this,” she says.

She is, after all, not alone in this pre-packaged news business. Adhering to a similar rationale, U.S. News & World Report and recently began running articles from the National Science Foundation, a federal agency, which often concern research the foundation supports.

Does this present a conflict of interest? The Washington Post’s piece on AIDS immunology was an interesting, informative article that seems to pass journalistic muster (indeed, the original article in Proto included many caveats and challenges to the research being covered). And some argue that such pre-packaged news is better than no news at all, which is the tradeoff faced by more and more outlets. But for many others, publications like the Post are blurring lines between objective journalism and covert PR. Where do you stand?

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.