Writing about think tanks and using their research: A cautionary tip sheet

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

Most reporting on medical research relies on peer-reviewed studies published in medical journals. But independent corporations, nonprofits, advocacy organizations and other institutions conduct their own research. Moreover, they seek media coverage of their findings, usually (albeit not always) to serve their objectives and interests.

One such organization is a think tank, an organization ostensibly aimed at objectively researching and analyzing a particular issue and policy solutions to that issue – but, more often, influenced by an ideological bias that drives their findings. Still, journalists may find think tank reports worth reporting about and using in their research. That is why this tip sheet from Journalist’s Resource (just added to the tip sheet section of AHCJ’s Medical Studies Core Topic section) may be helpful for reporters trying to decide whether – or how much – to rely on think tank research.

For example, I have found research from the Commonwealth Foundation helpful in reporting on stories about health care policy and about peer-reviewed studies on the cost-effectiveness of various programs or policies. (This is not an endorsement of the Commonwealth Foundation; it’s simply a familiar think tank that many other reporters will recognize as well.)

But just as journalists must be skeptical in assessing the quality and reliability of findings from medical studies, they must be just as – or more – skeptical of the methods and findings from think tank studies. The source’s nonprofit status should not lessen that skepticism. Keep in mind that until 2015, the NFL was a nonprofit with tax-exempt status, and we don’t have to look far for some tobacco-level cover-ups from that organization. As the Boston Globe reported several years ago, think tanks are major partisan political players in all realms of policy.

The tip sheet includes a list of definitions for terms such as nonprofit, nonpartisan, foundation, non-governmental organization (NGO), watchdog and GONGOs, or government-organized non-governmental organizations. As the example above with the NFL shows, “nonprofit” isn’t as straightforward as “not making any profit” off whatever the organization does.

The Journalist’s Resource tip sheet also is rich with examples and links about past conflicts of interest, with valuable case studies on where to look for problems. It also mentions the annual Global Go-To Think Tanks Report produced at the University of Pennsylvania each year (the most recent report is for 2016). Another useful tip is how to look up tax filings for nonprofits and any records of foreign funding under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

The tip sheet includes a list of questions journalists should consider when researching a think tank, plus a list of other resources that may be helpful. Reporters may not access or report on think tank research as frequently as peer-reviewed medical studies, but they can provide valuable information to fill in gaps where medical research is lacking – as long as you do your due diligence on the report’s reliability.

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