Yesterday, the ScienceBlogs arm of Seed Media Group announced that they would be hosting a blog written by members of PepsiCo’s research and development leadership team. From the Food Frontiers blog:
PepsiCo’s R&D Leadership Team discusses the science behind the food industry’s role in addressing global public health challenges. This is an extension of PepsiCo’s own Food Frontiers blog. All editorial content on the blog is overseen by ScienceBlogs editors.
The opening post was written by ScienceBlogs “editor” Evan Lerner:
As part of this partnership, we’ll hear from a wide range of experts on how the company is developing products rooted in rigorous, science-based nutrition standards to offer consumers more wholesome and enjoyable foods and beverages. The focus will be on innovations in science, nutrition and health policy. In addition to learning more about the transformation of PepsiCo’s product portfolio, we’ll be seeing some of the innovative ways it is planning to reduce its use of energy, water and packaging. . .
. . .We have some exciting things planned for this project, including a video series that will begin with a look at the role the food industry plays in health issues, and how industry research into chemistry, physiology, neuroscience, behavioral economics, medicine, and nutrition can improve health outcomes around the world.
For the moment, I will set aside my objections to the presence on this network of a company that contributes to the explosion of obesity and diabetes among adults and children – a major strain on health care costs without even considering the increased risk of cancers. I’ll also withhold judgment for now on the content of the blog that may be offered by its writers, some of whom are physicians and scientists for PepsiCo. In fact, I’m particularly interested in what will be posted by Dr. George Mensah, a cardiovascular physician who had been at the CDC for nine years before joining PepsiCo. And I’ll hold back details of the little bit of vomit I felt at the back of my throat when seeing that Food Frontiers is posted within the “Medicine & Health” channel of ScienceBlogs.
I wish to focus my objections specifically on the breach of ethics and community represented by ScienceBlogs hosting this blog and accepting an undisclosed amount of sponsorship funds to do so.
When I joined ScienceBlogs four years ago last month, I was contractually promised complete editorial control over my content, including the right to ridicule anything ScienceBlogs does, and have never once been asked to adjust any of my writing. Never. Not once. Nor has a single blogger I know ever been asked to alter content. I specifically point this out because the Food Frontiers blog lists Evan Lerner as ScienceBlogs editor – he does not edit my content or anyone else’s. When ScienceBlogs was originally launched, the position occupied by Mr. Lerner was called “community manager.”
In return, ScienceBlogs puts advertising on the right sidebar for which they receive all payments. The advertising has now metastasized to above the masthead and several places throughout the frontpage such that, if you don’t use ad-blocking plug-ins for your browser, are making this site look like a GoDaddy page. In fact, “The Promise of PepsiCo” ad routinely rotates above the masthead.
But I understand the need for advertising to keep a business afloat. And in return, ScienceBlogs pays us a small amount at a rate proportional to our respective blog traffic. For me, saving my earnings for two full years will probably allow me to buy a new MacBook Pro. The advertising also pays for the technical support of the blog, though sorely declining, and integration of content into the network and the ScienceBlogs frontpage and channels.
This has been an acceptable relationship and even allowed me to obtain certification from the Health On The Net Foundation for objective health information content after I clearly identified advertising content and the financial relationship.
But ScienceBlogs has now stepped over the line with the PepsiCo blog.
ScienceBlogs has become a respected outlet for science communication in the new media format. Their press release (PDF) from April notes that traffic to the network has increased by more than 50% each year since launched in January, 2006. There are many reasons for its success but I submit that it is due to the scientific content of many of the blogs and the engagement of concerned bloggers with their respective communities.
However, accepting paid content within the main blogging space of the network is a breach of ethics and a clear conflict of interest for a media organization. Even the most vapid print magazine will cordon off as “advertisement” corporate-sponsored content made to look like magazine text. But as of this morning, Food Frontiers contains no identifying text to denote that it is comprised of paid, corporate content.
But what makes me most angry – and hurts personally – is that ScienceBlogs would not have been able to offer such an attractive package to PepsiCo if not for the reputation and pageviews built by the bloggers who have written here over the last four-and-a-half years.
In the past, management would run any new business model past the bloggers in advance – not that they were required to do so but out of courtesy and understanding of the mutual dependence implicit in the relationship. In this case, we were all blindsided late yesterday by an e-mail from ScienceBlogs that Food Frontiers had been launched. No advance discussion. No consideration of how the relationship might affect how our readers view us.
Business may be business, but ScienceBlogs is making a mockery of itself and undermining the objectivity and reputation that we have all worked so hard to establish and maintain. The exodus of several high-profile bloggers and world-class science writers over the last 18 months speaks to the fact that ScienceBlogs is no longer the only such game in the blogosphere. And I am certain that this unfolding episode will make for great journalism ethics discussions in J-school classrooms around the world next semester.
For what it’s worth, PepsiCo’s Daniel Pellegrom stated at Food Frontiers that they will moderate comments and accept any that are “not defamatory or profane.” And bloggers are already exercising their personal editorial control to attack this decision to host Food Frontiers, with at least one blog leaving and others threatening to do so. However, I will have to dig in to find out why GrrlScientist’s post entitled, “Sucking Corporate Dick” has now changed to “Pepsi Ethics.”
As usual, Orac at Respectful Insolence has a very complete discussion of advertising and hosted content at ScienceBlogs and a history of the blogging network and the community of bloggers.
As you might guess, this episode has stimulated for me a deep examination of conscience and consideration of why I blog – and why I remain at ScienceBlogs. Although I write with a pseudonym, my identity is clearly available here and elsewhere and I also have to consider my professional reputation together with the one I have built here with you as an objective source of information about drugs and dietary supplements. There are tradeoffs in any relationship and each blogger here will decide what is right for them.
But what is clear at this point is that completely independent of whatever content shows up at PepsiCo’s Food Frontiers blog, ScienceBlogs has hammered many nails into the coffin of its reputation. The decision to host that blog is the current pinnacle of disrespect shown to the bloggers who have built the ScienceBlogs readership over the last four-and-a-half years.