When the Well Runs Dry

Is Duke Energy’s support for a new SciTech section a problem?

Last week, CJR’s online science desk, The Observatory, ran a story about the launch of a new weekly science and technology section at two North Carolina newspapers. The section is, as we reported, a rare reversal in the otherwise precipitous decline of science sections in newspapers across the country.

The Charlotte Observer and the Raleigh News & Observer were able to pull off this seemingly miraculous feat with the financial support of Duke Energy, one of the nation’s largest electric power companies, which is headquartered in Charlotte and services the Carolinas and the Midwest.

Duke agreed to fund the section in return for a block of ad space along the bottom of the entire two-page truck acknowledging its sponsorship. Alongside the ad space runs a prominent disclaimer informing readers that Duke plays no role in the editorial process, which is handled independently by the Charlotte and Raleigh newsrooms. Still, some are worried about the partnership.

The Observatory’s article, by T.K. Zellers, drew a sharp rebuke from the Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Paul Raeburn, who called it a “fluffy bit of science cheerleading.” The piece was “disturbingly off-center,” he wrote, because CJR did not seriously scrutinize the ethicality of Duke’s support for the new SciTech section.

Raeburn noted that he wasn’t sure whether the arrangement was right or wrong, but argued—quite fairly—that it’s not something that should be viewed lightly. He pointed out that in October, before the new section was launched, the Observer had run an article about Duke’s multimillion dollar efforts to fight cap-and-trade legislation on Capitol Hill, and he questioned whether such reporting would continue in light of the energy’s company’s support for SciTech.

James Hathaway, a public information officer at the University of North Carolina, offered his opinion in the comments section, arguing that, “the Observer has a longstanding community reputation for investigative, public interest journalism that I think supports it. I’m not sure why the issue of sponsorship of space for science coverage (where virtually none existed before) should be such an issue, since advertising like this always pays for newspapers and Duke has always been a major advertiser in the Observer and no one worried about that before. In the past, the Observer has had no fear of angering Duke and I doubt this would change that.”

It might also be worth pointing out the SciTech section supplements daily science coverage in the Carolina papers’ news pages. Traditionally, weekly science sections have stuck to research and discovery news and avoided the policy and economic debates related to science. So, conceivably, the Observer might choose to cover Duke in it’s news pages rather than in SciTech, both as a matter of course and to avoid any potential conflicts of interest.

Whatever the case, however, Raeburn was correct that these kinds of arrangements deserve more scrutiny. Thankfully, Zellers’s article has inspired vigorous debate—at the Tracker and on one of the National Association of Science Writers’ e-mail listservs—about appropriate ways to finance regional journalism when resources are scarce. We hope that debate will continue here.

Is Duke’s support for SciTech a problem? Why or why not, and what rules and conditions make such arrangements permissible, if any?

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.