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May 26, 2022, 9:51 a.m.
Reporting & Production

For Online News Association, the thorny ethics of partnering with 3M

Does the ONA’s “3M Truth in Science Award” imply that journalists and chemical companies are interested in telling the same story?

This spring, newsrooms around the world will decide whether to submit entries for a new “3M Truth in Science Award” from the Online News Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to digital journalism. It would be nice to be recognized for engaging science journalism that combats misinformation. And the cash prize of $3,500 would represent a tidy sum for a journalist or for a small news outlet. But the ethics of applying for a “truth in science” award sponsored by a company that has been decidedly untruthful about its own scientific findings feels squishy.

For decades, 3M withheld evidence from regulators and the public showing that chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) in some of its products accumulated in the environment and people’s bloodstreams with potentially toxic effects. Often called “forever chemicals” because they don’t easily degrade, PFASs (pronounced PEE-fasses) are linked to a host of health problems including cancer, ulcerative colitis, diabetes, and disrupted immune development. Recent research also suggests there may be an association with weakened bones in teen boys.

Sean Lynch, a 3M spokesperson, told me that the company approached ONA after results from its annual State of Science Index identified misinformation as a potential threat to the credibility of science. In this year’s survey of more than 17,000 adults worldwide, 72% of respondents somewhat or completely agreed misinformation is widespread in traditional news; 85% think that it’s rampant on social media. In ONA, the world’s largest digital journalism association, 3M saw a partner that could help counter that trend by awarding excellent science journalism and providing resources on misinformation for members.

ONA agreed. The organization partners with numerous media and non-media companies and is open about those arrangements, said Irving Washington, ONA’s executive director and CEO. He told me that 3M donated a total of $84,500: $21,000 over three years for the new award; $45,000 for updating a Covid-19 Misinformation Playbook, plus additional resources for journalists on communicating about science and misinformation; $13,500 for a sponsored session on misinformation at the 2022 ONA conference; and $5,000 for administrative fees. In exchange, 3M gets its name on an award, credit for sponsoring the playbook (although the company isn’t involved in the content), and the opportunity to design the conference session, subject to ONA’s review.

Washington was quick to point out that 3M has no role in reviewing or judging submissions for the new award. He anticipated my next question: “Yes, there is a case where a story about 3M can be submitted in the awards and win an award sponsored by 3M.” Awkward.

To be sure, corporate financial support for journalism and journalism organizations is integral to the profession. While some outlets (including Undark, where this piece was originally published) are funded through foundations, most rely, at least in part, on ad revenue. Companies pay for booths at conferences and sponsor press at events. And you’ll find corporate-sponsored content in newspapers and magazines — unfortunately, in some cases, designed to look like real news. So, why should 3M’s partnership with ONA give journalists pause?

I put that question to a group of science journalists on Slack. “I wonder if building and maintaining trust with the audience is what’s really at stake, with readers/viewers knowing that stories are not for sale to the highest bidder,” Carol Morton, a freelance science journalist, replied, putting words to my unease. 3M is buying itself at least the appearance of expertise in scientific truth while working to refute, or at least spin, mounting evidence that some of its chemicals are making people sick.

A “3M Truth in Science Award” implies that we — journalists and chemical companies — are interested in telling the same story about the events unfolding around us. And we aren’t.

While other journalism organizations accept corporate funding for awards, it seems unusual for an honor to carry the brand of a for-profit company. At least this year, the 3M award is unique in that regard at ONA. And I found no corporate-branded awards among the offerings of several other prominent journalism organizations, including The Association of Health Care Journalists, The American Society of Magazine Editors, The National Press Club, The Society of Professional Journalists, and The Society of Environmental Journalists, among others.

That may be to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. Titled awards are typically named for revered journalists or foundations and universities that support journalistic values. The “3M Truth in Science Award” could imply that ONA endorses the company as a bastion of scientific truthfulness. “That’s a good perspective,” acknowledged Washington, but he said that ONA’s overriding concern was transparency. He noted that you wouldn’t want to apply for an award only to find out later who sponsored it.

Erika Check Hayden, director of the science communication program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, agreed. She’s nonplussed by the partnership as long as 3M’s role is made clear. However, she advised journalists to bring “an analytical eye” to a conference session that is both sponsored by 3M and for which 3M has selected the speakers — especially for topics centered on misinformation. That’s because, she said, “3M’s concept of scientific misinformation is a key issue in the ongoing litigation” involving the company.

Indeed, the company itself is at the heart of the ethical dilemma. As investigative journalist Sharon Lerner reported for The Intercept in 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency fined 3M more than $1.5 million in 2006 for withholding hundreds of documents detailing what 3M knew about the harms of PFAS chemicals. Lerner’s investigation showed that some of that evidence didn’t become public until 2018 when the Minnesota Attorney General released a tranche of documents after settling a lawsuit for $850 million over 3M’s pollution of groundwater with PFAS compounds.

The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy group, used those documents, among other evidence, to construct a timeline showing that by the 1960s, 3M knew that these compounds were toxic; by the 1970s, the company knew they accumulated in people’s blood.

3M knew about the potential dangers of PFASs decades before the public, said Lerner, who has written about 60 articles on PFAS chemicals as part of a series called Bad Chemistry. “That means that they had information that would have allowed them — and should have — resulted in a decision not to continue using chemicals that persist indefinitely in the environment and last in people’s blood,” she told me. As it is, one or more PFAS chemicals course through the bloodstreams of nearly every American, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And while two PFAS compounds have been largely phased out of production, a long list of consumer products continue to make use of these nonstick chemicals, including fast-food wrappers, cookware, stain-resistant textiles, cleaners, and more. Making, using, and disposing of those products has polluted the environment; PFASs now contaminate the very air we breathe and the water we drink.

“3M disagrees with accusations that its sharing of knowledge and information about PFAS has been untimely,” Lynch wrote to me in an email. The company “has placed thousands of documents in the public domain,” he wrote. 3M has also compiled its research on “PFAS testing, measurement, and remediation best practices,” he wrote, and shares that information publicly on its website.

But litigation has put 3M at the center of a debate over the effects of PFAS chemicals and how they should be regulated. States, counties, and individuals have filed numerous lawsuits against 3M over PFAS contamination and, in turn, the company is suing states over regulations to limit PFAS levels in drinking water.

“3M is continuing to mislead the public about the risks posed by PFASs,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president for governmental affairs at the Environmental Working Group. “And they are literally standing alone in doing so.”

He notes that at a 2019 hearing conducted by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform, 3M refuted the large body of evidence linking PFASs to health harms while the other two companies testifying, DuPont and the Chemours Company, a DuPont spinoff, did not. “They are the flat earthers of PFAS,” said Faber, referring to 3M.

Faber said that he’s not an authority on the ethics of journalism organizations partnering with corporations. But there should be a line, he said: “If there is money that journalists won’t accept, then 3M’s money ought to be on the list.”

As I highlighted in a previous Undark column, science journalism is struggling to find sustainable sources of financial support. “Certainly, science journalism needs help,” wrote Check Hayden of UC, Santa Cruz, along with her husband, Thomas Hayden, founding director of the Master of Arts in Earth Systems, Environmental Communication Program at Stanford University, in a 2018 commentary in the journal Frontiers in Communication. That’s made the issue of how to handle a corporate sponsorship or partnership increasingly relevant, Check Hayden told me. She pointed out that a lot of new models for supporting journalism, especially at the local and regional level, are based on partnerships, including with corporations.

Every organization must decide for itself where to draw the line for accepting donations. The Society of Environmental Journalists, for example, lays out strict policies. Executive director Meaghan Parker told me that when anyone — an individual, advocacy organization, or corporation — offers support for coverage of a topic, SEJ first emphasizes its independence. “You don’t get to tell us what’s on the agenda or who gets to speak,” she said. “There’s no pay to play. That’s always our starting point. Sometimes that weeds out people right away.”

Donors that make it past that point are often tightly focused on a topic that affects them, said Parker. “If you’re interested in this really narrow funnel, you’re starting to get closer to paid advertising.” She encourages people to think more broadly — supporting reporting on public lands, say, not just a nearby national park. Parker did not want to comment directly on ONA’s policies, but she acknowledged that organizations whose members report on a broad range of subjects might have different considerations than those whose members are focused specifically on the environment or health care.

Indeed, ONA’s sponsorship, donor, and gift policy is “pretty broad and vague,” said Washington. The group pays the most attention to whether a potential partner is threatening democracy or journalism, he said. “That’s a clear ‘no,’ for anybody that we would work with.” But the opening lines of the policy focus on ONA’s own reputation, stating that funds “will be to enhance, and not tarnish, ONA’s credibility or image as a global leader in digital journalism.”

Check Hayden isn’t sure the 3M partnership meets that bar. “There’s definitely an appearance of conflict here that was always going to make this arrangement somewhat problematic.” In the end, 3M, which reported more than $35 billion in sales last year, bought itself a big, positive reputation enhancement for what amounts to pocket change, she said. Meanwhile, while 3M’s donation may have a small positive impact for science journalism, it may also negatively affect ONA’s reputation. “Net-net, there’s not really a benefit for them,” said Check Hayden.

Washington isn’t concerned: “We felt that this award, what it was honoring, and the intent behind it, and the recognition that it was giving to people reporting in the science space, is something that ONA wanted to support.” He doesn’t think a partnership with 3M will change reporting on the company or otherwise impede journalists like me. “Members, they’re doing what they’re supposed to do,” he said. “I mean, this story” — meaning this column — “is a prime example of that.”

As for whether to submit work for a 3M Truth in Science Award, Check Hayden said journalists will have to weigh the nice cash price against the appearance of a conflict. “I do think that a lot of organizations will err on the side of discouraging people from applying for the award,” she said.

Lerner, who has won journalism awards for her coverage of PFAS chemicals at The Intercept, would not comment on the appropriateness of ONA’s partnership with 3M. “You can say I am not planning on submitting my work,” she said. “You can say that for sure.”

As a freelancer, I also wouldn’t put forth a story for an award. I’m concerned that media outlets and readers might think that it was from 3M. And there’s just not room on a resume to explain. Sure, I could use the $3,500 and another feather in my cap, but at the end of the day, my reputation as a journalist is far more valuable.

Teresa Carr is a Texas-based investigative journalist and the author of Undark’s Matters of Fact column. This article was originally published on Undark. Read the original article.

Photo of 3M headquarters in Delft by Gerald Stolk used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 26, 2022, 9:51 a.m.
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