Journalists like to see themselves as incorruptible, as paragons for the truth and for freedom of information. To suggest that they can be bought off like politicians by big business would draw scoffs from any hard nosed journalist worth their salt. However, a recent report in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) could very well knock this confidence back a little.
The report by the BMJ states that over a period of several years, the drink giant Coca Cola paid thousands of dollars to help fund conferences for journalists. This resulted in several journalists writing pieces stating that exercise was a greater contributor to obesity than the consumption of sugary drinks such as Coca Cola.
Yoni Freedhoff assistant professor of medicine at Ottawa University, told the BMJ that: “For Coca Cola the ‘energy balance’ message has been a crucial one to cultivate, as its underlying inference is that, even for soda drinkers, obesity is more a consequence of inactivity that it is of regularly drinking liquid candy.”
There exists documented evidence of the tobacco industry’s attempts to derail the effect of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s 1993 report on secondhand smoke. The tobacco industry managed to successfully plant stories within the mainstream media that questioned the ‘scientific validity’ of the report that helped build doubt amongst consumers. The stories came out after the tobacco industry funded events for journalists and generally courted them through various means, suggesting that even members of the Fourth Estate, can fall victim to well orchestrated public relations campaigns. The Coca Cola campaign is no different.
With the Coca Cola campaign, the story begins with a series of articles published in the New York Times and Associated Press on the Global Energy Balance Network, which was a science based collaboration between Coca Cola and university scientists to tackle the obesity crisis. The company donated $1 million to the University of Colorado, home to the company’s president James Hill. Over the course of a three year period the company and Coca Cola itself donated thousands of dollars to the University of Colorado, for conferences to be held for journalists.
At these conferences various experts paid for by Coca Cola would give speeches, at which they would follow Coca Cola’s line and espouse that obesity was not caused by drinking sugary drinks such as Coke, but rather, through the lack of exercise someone might suffer from. The evidence was presented in such a way that it would create doubt in the minds of the journalists who were in attendance, and as such when the conferences were finished, several journalists would go onto write articles that supported the line Coca Cola wanted peddled.
In a series of emails from this period, which the BMJ obtained through a Freedom of Information request, Hill is shown expressing his gratitude to Coca Cola:
“The journalists told us this was an amazing event and they generated a lot of stories. You basically supported the meeting this year, I think we can get many more sponsors involved next year.”
“The conference was a great success and even better than last year. These journalists came away with a much more realistic understanding of society. Thanks again for your support.”
These two emails paint a rather worrying picture. From the way Hill phrases his words, it does not seem as if the journalists did any fact checking of their own-a must for any journalist worth their salt!- and instead simply relied upon the information they were given by the ‘experts’ Coca Cola sent to speak to them.
The blind devotion to the evidence as presented by these so called experts, could well have led to misinformed pieces about the risk of sugary drinks contributing to obesity. Pinning the blame not on an equal share, as many scientists would advise, but instead on the individual as a whole, is not sensible, nor is it accurate. By funding these conferences, Coca Cola was shifting their corporate responsibility, and ensuring that the blame could rest solely with the individuals, and ensuring they could still turn a profit.
Indeed, in emails seen by the BMJ and quoted within their article, a Coca Cola executive is said to have replied to Hill’s emails in the following way: “Have read the entire report, excellent. Count us in for next year.”
A worrying signal, and one that suggests that the game plan they were working under was indeed working to a degree they had perhaps not fully expected to.
That one journalist who worked for CNN felt confident enough to speak so positively about a conference made up of purely Coca Cola approved ‘experts’ paints a further bleak image. In her letter to Hill, that is part of a report he sent to Coca Cola, she said. “You had all the rock stars of the obesity topic, the quality of speakers chosen was incredible. Never have I been to such a helpful conference.”
However, one beam of hope existed amongst all the journalists who were willingly eating off the plate Coca Cola was giving them. Kristin Jones, became concerned about where the funding for these conferences was coming from, and complained to the National Press Foundation. The Foundation passed her onto several other places who all did their best to reassure her that the funding was coming from a legitimate source.
However, when the BMJ spoke to her in 2017, she had this to say: “I feel like I was lied to.” She does not work as a journalist anymore, and told the BMJ. “Had I known where the funding was coming from, I would never have attended those conferences.”
Coca Cola is just one example, and whilst it might seem like something to get overly worried about, that there were journalists just blindly following what they were told and not doing their own research, is deeply concerning. Journalism prides itself on hard work, and proper research, to simply allow big business to court it in such a way that everything else is skewered seems a betrayal to the very values they teach young journalists.