The recent discussion on foreign governments gaining influence through US think tanks seems to be going into another round. Attention now is shifting onto the role of the media.
Recent cases have shown that major media outlets have run op-eds by contributors who did not disclose important potential conflicts of interest. These contributors identify themselves as retired public servants or researchers and neglect to mention other relevant affiliations. The most recent case is that of a university professor who apparently failed to disclose her relationship with a state-owned oil company in the Caspian region. (Please follow us on Twitter for updates on this breaking story.)
Transparify is advocating for more integrity in policy discussions, so this is an issue of of concern.
This issue may be partially fixable
- by demanding routine funding disclosure and highlighting to readers when such disclosure is not offered.
- by asking individual contributors to explicitly state that they do not have conflicts of interest. This would turn misrepresentation into an act of commission, rather than neglect. Explicit declarations by now are standard practice in medical journals, and we believe they are a good idea for policy-related outlets, too.
These are realistic proposals that can be implemented. Of course, even more could be done, such as posting, with a link, the disclosure forms and maybe even resumes of individual contributors. This may be a measure for media outlets that are particularly keen to advance disclosure practices. The key is to shift the default towards transparency.
Taking such steps could contribute to more integrity in debate. Without such measures, we are likely to remain in a never-ending cycle of mini-scandals. These will increase cynicism about the contribution of policy experts to public debate, and needlessly damage the many good think tanks who are committed to transparency.
Policy research has much to offer to public debate. Last week, the media reminded think tanks that they should hold themselves to high standards. Yet the media needs to hold itself to higher standards, too. We believe that our suggested two steps are great steps in that direction.