The Times ran an ‘exposé’ of Coca-Cola funding of scientists last week which was similar to the New York Times exposé of Coke’s funding of health organisations last month. The NYT story was similar to the British Medical Journal exposé of food industry funding of scientists in February which, in turn, was similar to Channel 4’s Dispatches exposé of food industry funding of scientists last year.
There have been enough of these stories doing the rounds for us to see a pattern emerging. ‘Exposing’ food industry funding is a journalistic gold mine because it guarantees maximum attention for minimum effort. So if you’re a freelance journalist wanting to get in on the action, here are some tips.
First — and this is critical — don’t tell your readers that food industry funding of research is considered perfectly normal in the world of nutritional science. Government, industry and civil society have worked together for decades to see how food products can be improved and the government actively seeks industry contributions. Moreover, Coca-Cola is a huge global company with a large corporate responsibility budget. Most scientists who have worked in nutrition for any period of time will have seen a research grant from a food or soft drink company at some point, but you don’t need to provide this context. Funding sources and competing interests are invariably mentioned at the bottom of studies published in peer-reviewed journals, but there’s no need to mention that either. You want readers to believe that you have uncovered something that was previously a closely guarded secret.
Second, build some straw men. Research findings in nutrition tend to be fairly boring and you are unlikely to find any evidence of impropriety so make up for the lack of scientific misconduct by using innuendo and misrepresentation. Mainstream scientists understand that obesity is caused by a calorie surplus due to over-eating or under-exercising. They believe in a balanced diet and physical activity. Anti-sugar campaigners believe that it is entirely about diet, and especially carbohydrates, but you need to portray their fringe view as mainstream science while portraying mainstream science as industry spin. One way to do that is to attribute extreme views to the people you’re attacking. For instance, claim that ‘scientists who have received funding from Coca-Cola … argue that diet is an insignificant factor compared with physical activity’. Nobody really thinks that, but it makes them sound dodgy.
Third, get some quotes from Action on Sugar or their supporters. Mainstream scientists believe that a calorie is a calorie and that both diet and physical activity are important in combating obesity. Action on Sugar believe the exact opposite. They will probably compare the food industry to the tobacco industry and say something about foxes and chicken coups. This is good because it gives your readers an existing narrative they can understand. Once you’ve got a couple of quotes from anti-sugar obsessives you can write something like ‘many scientists blame increased sugar consumption for Britain’s obesity epidemic’. ‘Many’ is a handy weasel word and your readers won’t know that sugar consumption has been falling for the last 30 years. There is nothing to be gained from telling them.
Fourth, pick a policy which the government was never going to introduce in a million years and imply that it was derailed by industry. The sugar tax is a good one. Hardly any countries have a sugar or soda tax and the Conservative and Labour parties have repeatedly rejected them because they would be regressive, ineffective and unpopular. Don’t worry about that. Just point out that Jamie Oliver wants a sugar tax and the industry doesn’t. Ipso facto, the industry and its hired goons must have prevented the government from bringing one in.
Fifth, don’t look too closely at what the recipients of the funding actually say. Just report that the National Obesity Forum, for example, has received money from Coke and let readers come to their own conclusions. Under no circumstances should you mention that the National Obesity Forum is a fanatical supporter of a tax on fizzy drinks and a fierce critic of the food industry. Similarly, if you’re going to make a scientist like Susan Jebb the main target of your hit piece about sugar’s ‘web of influence’ don’t spoil the story by mentioning her heavily nanny statist views. If your readers realise that recipients of funding are independently minded people who hold a wide variety of views on policy, it would undermine your theme of corporate corruption.
Finally, timing is everything. The health select committee on childhood obesity holds its first session tomorrow so the more front-page stories like this the better.