As digital communication becomes more central to our lives and our work, technology companies like Google have more at stake in the public-policy decisions that affect the evolution of communication systems—such as the debate over net neutrality.
The New York Times quoted Zittrain at least twelve times in the last two years on issues related to Google or its rivals. In most cases, only his academic affiliation was provided to readers. (Sometimes he was also identified as author of his 2008 book, The Future of The Internet—And How to Stop It.) “We don’t have specific written policies on what questions you should ask a source before you start interviewing them,” says Philip B. Corbett, the Times’s associate managing editor for standards.
Asked what the difference was between the Berkman-Google connection and a recent Times story on Eli Lilly in which readers were told that the expert quoted—the dean of the medical school at the University of Virginia—“has consulted for Lilly and other companies,” Corbett says: “Medical writers and health writers have become much more aware of this nexus and have gotten used to, almost as a matter of course, when you’re writing about a drug trial, to ask whether there’s a connection and to disclose that.”
In a subsequent interview, Corbett told me he had visited Berkman’s website and, “It looked to me as though they get funding from a lot of sources. I’m not sure that necessarily raises a flag, because they have multiple funding sources . In a case where an academic is getting directly paid by the company, you’d want to know.”
At The Wall Street Journal, Zittrain has been asked to opine at least nine times in the last two years on issues related to Google and its rivals, with only his academic affiliation provided. (Again, sometimes his 2008 book was cited.) Ashley Huston, Dow Jones’s senior communications director, said via e-mail that, “While there is no formal policy” at the paper about what to disclose when quoting academics or other expert sources, “we do our level best to tease out conflicts and disclose them to readers when we believe it’s warranted.” Nick Wingfield, a technology reporter at the Journal, said in a brief telephone interview that, though he wasn’t sure whether the paper had a policy on this, “As a general rule I ask people if they are consultants or if they worked with somebody that they’re commenting on.”
As for the supply side of the expert-quote equation, Harvard has been shoring up its own policies regarding conflicts of interest in the wake of several high-profile cases of undisclosed industry ties involving employees at its medical school and affiliated institutions. On August 19, four days after Newsweek published its Q&A with Zittrain, B. D. Colen, Harvard’s senior communications officer for university science, who said he speaks for the university and not the law school, said that the university is in the process of requiring all schools within the next nine to twelve months to “meet or exceed” new conflict-of-interest guidelines. These include a provision regarding disclosure that would appear to have required Zittrain to spell out the Google connection in his interview with Newsweek (emphasis mine):
To promote the transparency essential to societal trust in the University and its faculty, faculty members receiving financial support for their academic work are expected to disclose such interests and sources of support in all publications, public reports, communications to the media, and formal presentations, written or oral, concerning that work . Disclosure of support and financial interests is also expected when faculty members are sought as experts to inform the public on matters of concern and to help shape public policy.