Tag Archives: stats

Journal Sentinel: STATS not as impartial as it claims

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Susanne Rust and Meg Kissinger make the case that George Mason University-affiliated STATS, a media watchdog group that calls itself a “non-profit, non-partisan Statistical Assessment Service” actually has “a history of working for corporations trying to deflect concerns about the safety of their products.” They note that the organization contracted with Philip Morris at least twice to monitor news coverage on behalf of tobacco companies.

plastic-bottle

Photo by How can I recycle this via Flickr

STATS recently accused the media in general and the Journal Sentinel in particular of using sketchy science to over-inflate fears about bisphenol A. As Rust and Kissinger mention, “Gina Kolata of The New York Times and the Center for Health Care Journalists [sic]” repeated STATS’ claims of impartiality when writing about its report on BPA.

Rust’s and Kissinger’s research about STATS turned up documents, including an internal memo outlining Phillip Morris’ strategy for using STATS reports for their own PR purposes.

Rust and Kissinger also found that, while STATS does not disclose its donors, IRS documents showed that “the Sarah Scaife Foundation reported giving STATS $100,000 in 2007, an amount that equaled all of STATS’ assets – except for $435 in income interest. The Scaife Foundation funds a number of organizations that promote public policy against regulation, including the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute.”

The reporters also chronicle an odd little incident in which they noticed that STATS listed the Hormone Society as a contributor on their Web site, a relationship which the foundation’s director vehemently denies.

Finally, reporters presented an interesting quote posted on the Poynter Institute’s Web site by STATS editor Trevor Butterworth, who they describe as “BPA’s fiercest advocate.”

“Forget conventional PR! If some bratty journalist gives you a whack, whack back with obscene, jaw dropping disproportion: knee him in the groin, pull what’s left of his hair out, tell him he writes in clichés, and misuses the semicolon, and stomp on his iPhone! A hack is like a bully, and charming a bully is a bit like reasoning with a psychopath or writing a novel on Twitter. For the tough cases, go Dada.  . . .  Defending the brand means exacting respect and that will come from fear not charm.”

Update

STATS has responded to the Journal Sentinel‘s article, including a specific note about the use of Butterworth’s quote from the Poynter Institute’s Web site.

STATS: Media ignored science in BPA coverage

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

In a review of American media coverage of the controversy of bisphenol A, researchers at STATS (a nonprofit, nonpartisan Statistical Assessment Service affiliated with George Mason University), say the media failed to properly weight different studies based on their size and research methodology and relied too heavily on sources like the University of Missouri biologist Frederick vom Saal (bio page), a man STATS takes pains to discredit.

View the full 49-page pdf here.

The report’s thesis:

Scientists, regulators, and politicians in Europe, Australia, and Japan have all rejected the evidence that the chemical is harmful as methodologically flawed, badly conducted or irrelevant – with some warning that banning it could actually endanger the public. Now that the National Institutes of Health has acknowledged it funded a lot of poorly-designed research on BPA – the very research that activists touted as evidence that the chemical is deadly – it’s time to ask whether America has been spun by clever marketing rather than clever science.

STATS focused much of their effort on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s coverage, critiquing the paper’s methodology and motivation in reporting and researching BPA.

Did the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which wrote over 30,000 words on BPA in 2008 get lost in the evidence, and end up being seduced by a storyline that made for great journalism but not very good science?

The 27,000-word review includes the case against Vom Saal (pages 10 through 18), a related critique on the Journal-Sentinel‘s sources (pages 30 to 34), an illuminating tea analogy (page 15, infobox), and an explanation of how some studies are determined to be more valuable than others for risk-assessment purposes (pages 12 and 14, infobox). On pages 40 and 41, STATS mentions one of those valuable studies, from 2009, and questions why it was not covered in the media. Finally, those looking for the report’s most inflammatory language will find it in the conclusion (page 49).

It’s important to note that “STATS was contacted by Journal Sentinel reporter Meg Kissinger on June 15 with the complaint that the claim STATS contacted reporters at the paper was false because she has no record of being contacted.” STATS goes on to explain that it tried to contact Kissinger’s co-author, reporter Susanne Rust, and Mark Katches, deputy managing editor for projects, and that neither responded.