Major news outlets are running a tobacco company’s ads on their websites

More than two decades after cigarette ads began disappearing from newspapers, major news organizations are running ads on their websites from tobacco giant Philip Morris touting the company’s research into smoke-free tobacco products.

I began reporting this piece after an alert reader called my attention to an ad in The Boston Globe titled “Science leading to a smoke-free future,” which appeared over the weekend and was in rotation as recently as Monday. But in Googling around, it didn’t take long to find that similar Philip Morris ads have been published by The New York Times, The Washington Post and Reuters. No doubt they’ve appeared in many other outlets, too.

These are not ads that were automatically served up to news websites by Google. Rather, they are sponsored content, produced in collaboration with the news organization that publishes them. Such content, also known as “native advertising,” use type and layout that differ from the typical presentation. It’s also accompanied by disclosures that it was paid for by the advertisers and that the news and editorial departments had no involvement in its production.

Regular readers know that I’m a defender of native ads as long as there is sufficient disclosure, and I have no problem with the way these news organizations handle them. But partnering with a major tobacco company on an ad promoting research into tobacco products? Really?

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These ads appear under the byline of Dr. Moira Gilchrist, vice president of strategic and scientific communications at Philip Morris. Some excerpts from the Globe version:

We are now on a path to one day, hopefully soon in many countries in which we operate, completely replace cigarette sales with smoke-free alternatives that are a better choice for the people around the world who smoke today. These are nicotine-containing products that do not burn tobacco, which — while not risk-free — are a much better choice than continuing to smoke….

The fundamental principle that drives our scientific work is the widely accepted fact that nicotine — while addictive and not risk-free — is not the primary cause of smoking-related disease. It’s the burning of tobacco that creates the harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke — which is why from the outset we design our smoke-free products to eliminate burning, thus eliminating smoke while providing an alternative that smokers find acceptable and will actually use.

According to Michael Moore of Australia’s George Institute for Public Health in Australia, and a past president of the World Federation of Public Health Associations, the Philip Morris ads are the latest in a series of tactics by Big Tobacco to win acceptance for e-cigarettes. In an article he wrote last year for the European Journal of Public Health, he identified other tactics employed by the tobacco companies as “use of the term ‘harm reduction,’” social-media attacks on critics, hiring lobbyists, and touting e-cigarettes as a method for quitting smoking. According to a summary of his article:

Tobacco companies face an ever-increasing rate of marginalisation. They use eCigarettes as an opportunity to improve their credibility. In the past it was “just filter it” and “light cigarettes”. More recently, Philip Morris established a “Foundation for a Smoke-free World” pumping millions of dollars into distorting arguments about harm reduction.

And, yes, Moore gives Gilchrist a shoutout: “To enhance arguments, Big Tobacco has deployed public health figures like Dr Derek Yach and Dr Moira Gilchrist.”

When I asked Megan Arendt, a spokeswoman for the anti-tobacco organization Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), about the Philip Morris ads, she told me by email: “In a perfect world, vapes would only be marketed to (and sold to) adult people who smoke. But given their clear history of targeting children, an ad ban should include all tobacco products.”

The Philip Morris ad doesn’t promote smoking or even vaping, which has its own health risks. (On Monday, Juul reached a $40 million settlement with North Carolina over a lawsuit charging that the vaping company marketed to kids. Massachusetts is suing as well.) But the ad does talk about “ensuring our smoke-free products deliver a consistent aerosol” — so the intended user of the products being developed would still be inhaling.

Cigarette advertising is legal in U.S. newspapers. The papers couldn’t be banned from accepting such ads because of First Amendment protections, but the tobacco companies themselves could be prohibited from advertising. In 1970, President Richard Nixon (yes, everything really does go back to Nixon) signed legislation banning cigarette ads from television and radio, but those are regulated media.

The New York Times banned cigarette ads in April 1999, but said the policy didn’t apply to other papers it owned, which at that time included the Globe. That July, the Globe’s then-ombudsman, Jack Thomas, took his bosses to task and called for the Globe to follow the example set by the Times and other papers. He wrote that “publishers are still in conflict, still seduced by the revenue from tobacco ads but also uneasy in the role of a siren luring readers into a deathtrap.”

My research trail went cold after I found the Thomas piece, but at some point the Globe stopped accepting cigarette ads, as did virtually all other newspapers. As ASH’s Arendt says, the Globe — and every media outlet — should take the next step and refuse to accept ads for tobacco products. Claims that the products are only intended for adults who want a safer alternative to smoking are nice, but you know what? They’ll find those products without the complicity of news organizations.

Trust is down, subscriptions are up — and the demand for objective news is falling

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The COVID-19 pandemic has given a boost to trusted sources of news such as television and online mainstream outlets, but has battered print newspapers for the simple reason that people find it harder to get their hands on them while on lockdown. And though paid digital subscriptions are on the rise, that may be driving a demand for coverage that’s more in line with readers’ political views.

Those are some of the findings of the 2020 Digital News Report, an annual study of news-consumption habits compiled by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the University of Oxford. The new report is based on a YouGov survey of some 80,000 people in 40 markets, most of them Western democracies but also including countries such as Kenya and the Philippines.

“The seriousness of this crisis has reinforced the need for reliable, accurate journalism that can inform and educate populations, but it has also reminded us how open we have become to conspiracies and misinformation,” writes Nic Newman, senior research associate at the Reuters Institute.

The study was mainly conducted pre-pandemic, with some follow-up in late March and early April in order to determine how COVID had affected news habits. The report is massive, but there are a few findings that I think are worth highlighting.

• Trust in the media rose somewhat at the height of the pandemic, but overall it continues to fall. For me, the most striking finding is that news consumers said their levels of trust are low even in the media that they use.

Globally, trust in the media that people actually use was 46%, down three points from the previous survey. In the United States, 45% of respondents said they trust the news they use. In addition, 29% of U.S. respondents said they trust the news media in general, 22% said they trust news from search and only 14% said they trust news from social media.

If Americans no longer trust even the media they rely on, that represents a new and unsettling challenge for journalism — and a dramatic change from just a few years ago. For instance, take a look at this 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center. More than 60% of self-identified liberals said they trusted NPR, PBS, the BBC and The New York Times. Similarly, 88% of conservatives said they trusted Fox News.

What could explain the slide? No doubt it has a lot to do with the hyperpolarization of the Trump era. I can’t explain what’s going on among conservatives; Fox News is more popular than it’s ever been, and I assume that supporters of President Donald Trump watch it because they like it.

But among liberals, and especially among politically engaged Twitter users, we’ve all seen an exponential rise in anger when supposedly liberal outlets like the Times or NPR report the news in a way that plays down Trump’s lies and wanton acts of cruelty.

There is, in fact, some substance to these complaints, and the current media business climate makes news consumers feel empowered. Which brings me to my next observation.

• As advertising revenues plummet, paid digital subscriptions continue to rise. About 20% of Americans now report paying for a digital subscription, up four points in just a year. According to the report, the digital-subscription increase has come in two waves — the first in 2017, when anti-Trump readers stepped forward to support mainstream outlets, and the second this year, as news outlets cut back on free sampling while enticing new subscribers with steep discounts. (Such discounts, for example, help account for a surge at The Boston Globe to more than 200,000 digital subscribers.)

Traditionally, advertising paid for newspaper journalism while the nominal amount that consumers paid covered the cost of printing and distribution. As advertising continues to decline in importance, though, subscribers may be demanding a bigger say in how the news is covered.

At a webinar on the Reuters report on Tuesday, Rasmus Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute, said one of the reasons Americans, in particular, cite when asked why they subscribe to digital news is “because they believe in the mission of journalism and they want to support it.”

Given the overwhelmingly liberal orientation of subscribers to The New York Times and The Washington Post, the two leading national general-interest newspapers, it would hardly be a surprise if they see harshly negative coverage of the Trump administration as part of that mission.

And yet that runs counter to the third finding that I think is worth noting.

• Most survey respondents say they prefer neutral, objective news. This contradicts fears that an explosion of internet outlets and cable channels would lead many of us to seek out news that conforms to our ideological predilections. In the U.S., for instance, 60% “still express a preference for news without a particular point of view,” whereas 30% prefer news that reflects their beliefs.

In many other countries, though, the preference for nonpartisan news is higher than it is in the U.S. — and the percentage of American consumers who want ideologically compatible news is up seven points since 2013.

No doubt the difference between the U.S. and other countries is grounded in the sort of polarization that dismisses COVID as “fake news” and that has transformed wearing a face mask into a partisan political statement.

In addition, the report noted that countries where the preference for neutral news is highest — Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and Denmark — all have “strong and independent public broadcasters.” That is decidedly not the case in the U.S., where the federal government spends more on the Pentagon’s public-relations office than on PBS.

Bottom line: Although it’s somewhat heartening that a solid majority of Americans prefer objective news to partisan spin, we’re not doing as well as other countries — and the trend is heading in the wrong direction.

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Banksters demand that Senate Democrats silence Warren

This is really a remarkable story. In today’s Boston Globe, Annie Linskey reports that banksters from JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup have threatened to withhold payoffs (let’s not be too squeamish about what we call these payments) to Senate Democrats unless they can get Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown to shut up.

Warren has asked her supporters to raise $30,000 to make up the difference.

As the Globe notes, the story was first reported by Emily Flitter of Reuters, who adds the detail that Goldman Sachs and Bank of America are part of the cabal. Think about that the next time you visit the ATM.

More: Nice commentary by Charlie Pierce.

Goldsmiths honor journalism in the public interest

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

It started with one miner’s medical and legal nightmare and developed like a John Grisham novel. And finally it led to extensive reform of black lung diagnosis.

The Center for Public Integrity’s and ABC News’ yearlong work won it the $25,000 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting this week.

It took a medical database and exhaustive scrutiny of previously classified legal findings to produce the series. But Chris Hamby, the Center’s lead reporter, told a Harvard audience on Thursday that his research began with a plight “you just couldn’t ignore”: miner Gary Fox’s “outrageous” treatment by doctors and lawyers.

While Hamby circumvented privacy laws by getting miners’ consent to view their records, ABC News producer Matthew Mosk discovered a law firm that operated “like a John Grisham novel.”

As in past years, finalists for the Goldsmith awards, administered by the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, included much such collaboration between media and public service organizations. Goldsmith winners and finalists are traditionally seen as front-runners for Pulitzer Prizes, which will be announced next month.

• The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which bills itself as “the world’s best cross-border investigative team,” used Australian, Chinese and British reporters to reveal a universe of offshore money manipulation that has sparked international tax investigations.

ICIJ director Gerald Ryle said he was leaked 2.5 million files via hard drive and is proud that none of his operation’s anonymous informants has been caught. The 50-article series provides important context into powerful figures’ financial machinations. “We didn’t want to be Wikileaks and just dump documents,” he said.

While Ryle said his reporting was attacked in the Australian Senate and drew four libel suits, he noted that a Chinese colleague has faced even more danger. Kevin Lau, the former chief editor of the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao, was fired and then critically wounded in an attack last month. Ming Pao was one of ICIJ’s partners in the Offshore Leaks investigation.

• Another wide-ranging project was a bilingual multimedia revelation of widespread sexual assault against immigrant women by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism, the Center for Investigative Reporting, “Frontline,” Univision and KQED.

Reporter Andres Cediel said it took 18 months after an anonymous tip to produce the series, which has sparked criminal charges and pending legislation. The problem: he was committed to telling their story in a human way, but the victims were afraid to talk on camera. His colleague Bernice Young said it took countless trips going door to door to gain their trust. “It was a long, slow process to build a relationship,” she said.

“Frontline” producer-correspondent Lowell Bergman, lead reporter on the project, noted that this was Univision’s first foray into investigative reporting and predicted more such efforts in foreign language media.

• Shorenstein director Alex Jones said the free weekly Miami New Times was “punching above its weight” when it tackled the steroid industry.

New Times managing editor Tim Elfrink, who noted his paper had previously done investigative reporting on a very local scale, said the series started when a whistleblower came to him irate over a $4,000 dispute. The informant gave him a bunch of confusing documents about a Biogenesis operation running out of a Coral Gables strip mall. Elfrink called thousands of clients’ phone numbers — getting rejected 90 percent of the time — but eventually scanned court records to uncover the shady records of some clinic operators.

The stories, which have won a prestigious Polk Award, led to the suspension of 13 baseball players and changed how baseball owners and players approach drug use.

• Seeking national impact and backed by supportive news executives, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel scoured medical records throughout the country to expose potentially fatal flaws in newborn screening. Lead reporter Ellen Garber led a five-person team through a maze of withheld data and official denials.

When her data requests were denied, she had to negotiate state by state for records — finally penetrating the system by discovering that Arizona had kept detailed records of newborns babies from a small Native American tribe. She then confronted the head of that state’s health department, who finally released complete records.

Garber said the series, which has won the Taylor Award for fairness in journalism and the prestigious Selden Ring award for the year’s top investigative work, has had an “incredible impact,” revamping the system so blood samples arrive promptly.

• The Wall Street Journal’s Michael M. Phillips doesn’t consider himself an investigative reporter, but after covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he followed up his novelist brother’s discussions with a psychiatric researcher. This led to the discovery of secret lobotomies of servicemen after World War II.

His problem was to find out how widespread this pattern was. Freedom of Information requests denied, he turned to the National Archives, which he recommends as a fertile source of vintage information. He unearthed 18 boxes of surgical records filed under “L” — lobotomy. He picked the cases with unusual names, thinking their families would be easier to trace after more than 60 years. The multimedia presentation revealed that more than 2,000 servicemen were lobotomized, and he was able to portray some surviving victims.

• Putting a human face on a “numbers” story is a perennial challenge for investigative reporters.

Reuters staffers Scot Paltrow and Kelly Carr found egregious and widespread Defense Department accounting mistakes. Their editors shared the view of the subject’s importance but wrestled with how to make it interesting.

“Vast amounts of dollars resonates little,” said Paltrow. So they settled on a human-interest beginning to show how massive programs affect individuals:

EL PASO, Texas — As Christmas 2011 approached, U.S. Army medic Shawn Aiken was once again locked in desperate battle with a formidable foe…. This time, he was up against the U.S. Defense Department. Aiken, then 30 years old, was in his second month of physical and psychological reconstruction at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, after two tours of combat duty had left him shattered…. But the problem that loomed largest that holiday season was different. Aiken had no money. The Defense Department was withholding big chunks of his pay.

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.