CBS goofs up the green beat

Network fails to disclose M. Sanjayan’s affiliation and ties to source

Only two months after hiring him, CBS News has already botched a report from its new science and environment contributor, allowing him to interview a fire ecologist from The Nature Conservancy without mentioning that the contributor is the lead scientist at the very same group.

When CBS gave M. Sanjayan the job in May, a variety of critics argued that the network shouldn’t assign someone from an environmental advocacy organization to the green beat. I demurred, saying that in the modern media industry, reporting partnerships with non-journalists who work in the fields they cover are a fact of life. I reasoned that new outlets could ward off potential problems with transparency. In this instance, however, CBS failed.

In July, Sanjayan interviewed Nathan Korb, an ecologist at The Nature Conservancy, for a CBS Evening News report about the wildfires burning in the Western US. Korb was one of only two sources interviewed on camera, yet the fact that Sanjayan is the conservancy’s lead scientist never came up—not when host Scott Pelley introduced him in the studio, and not in the tape.

The substance of Sanjayan’s report is basically fine, but the lack of disclosure is a serious problem. It is becoming harder and harder to get objective, impartial coverage in today’s media, and consumers have a right to know exactly where their information is coming from—in fact, they need to know more than ever. There are already enough problems with transparency and advocacy without CBS fogging the lens even more.

Not only must the network mention Sanjayan’s affiliation with The Nature Conservancy in every report, but he should also avoid interviewing his colleagues there whenever possible—which is almost always. Korb is certainly not the only fire ecologist in Montana.

Asked about Sanjayan’s report and whether or not CBS agrees with these principles of disclosure, a CBS spokeswoman, who refused to be named, offered only an evasive defense.

“Certainly, this was an oversight,” she said. “On the other hand, informed readers may find the source of this critique somewhat ironic, coming as it does from CJR, which recently ran a report on the news divisions that failed to disclose its highly opinionated author’s prior affiliation to virtually all the networks that were covered in the piece.”

The spokeswoman was referring to an article in the July/August issue of our print magazine in which Paul Friedman analyzed programming changes at the three major network evening newscasts, including CBS Evening News. But her charge is baseless. Both the print and online versions of the article included an author’s bio box, which clearly stated that Friedman “worked at all three network news divisions” and listed the specific positions he held at each.

When I pointed this out to the spokeswoman, she amended her comment to say that CJR hadn’t disclosed Friedman’s affiliations “within the article.” This is absurd, and kind of sad. Bio boxes are standard industry practice and clearly part of the article.

CBS’s willingness to hide behind groundless accusations in order to avoid discussing its own mistake is even more disappointing than the mistake itself. So is the fact that Sanjayan and his publicist failed to respond to multiple emails seeking comment.

Overlooking the new science contributor’s Nature Conservancy affiliation and allowing him to interview a colleague is a relatively minor blunder, but it’s far more worrisome in light of CBS’s refusal to answer for it honestly.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , , ,