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'The Ugly Truth'

by Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science

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The Times 10th October 2015

To The Editor, The Times

For publication

Re Charity cast doubt on sugar deaths but failed to reveal Coca-Cola link, The Times 10th October 2015, p4

Sense About Science is concerned with accurate portrayal of evidence. Coca Cola gave us two donations to our annual fund three and four years ago, one of thousands of donations and not repeated since we closed general company donations in 2013. We are sorry to see Alexi Mostrous over-reach his investigation into Coca Cola and say that they have funded our charity to respond to stories about their products. Some people may not realize that many companies donate to many charities. This doesn’t mean they get something for it. In fact charity rules forbid that. Sense About Science is fortunate among our sector that in the last few years donations from members of the public have replaced company donations. However, in his effort to prove that something had been paid for with this earlier donation, Mostrous ignored material on our website criticizing a Coca Cola product and the many responses to news issues we’ve carried from dietitians who advocate reduction of fizzy drink consumption. Instead he alleges we… 

… questioned whether children get sugar rushes. In fact he means by this that we retweeted a Guardian article about the research.

… stated that a no-sugar diet could have adverse health consequences. The only thing he could be referring to is a response from a biochemist to the ‘no-sugar diet’ fad. It said this would mean no fruit and vegetables, which would have health consequences.

… said that sugar does not cause cancer. In fact we retweeted a Cancer Research UK article saying it doesn’t, and drew it to the attention of a company CEO who had made this claim in the Metro.

… criticized research linking fizzy drink consumption to violent behaviour in teenagers. We did the opposite. We carried a comment from a professor of clinical psychology that headlines stating ‘Five fizzy drinks make teenagers more likely to carry a gun’ were wrong and the research didn’t find this. It didn’t criticize the research, it cited the authors.

… criticized research linking sugary drinks to 184,000 deaths. The headlines were ‘fizzy drinks kill 180,000 a year’. NHS Choices pointed out that the research covered all sweetened drinks, and we carried four sentences from a professor of nutrition stating a more precise figure for the increased risk of type II diabetes from measuring actual sugar intake. 

Wow! In all my years of looking at media portrayal of evidence I have never encountered so much misrepresentation, exaggeration and innuendo in a few short sentences.

It is completely right that journalists should explore whether industry funding of research and donations to charities like ours has produced bias. But sadly Mostrous fails to do that through thorough investigation. Instead he lazily suggests that funding = bias without producing any evidence to prove it. That is smear not journalism. I could right now list all the Times advertisers and find hundreds of news articles that are positive about those companies. That would be a cheap move that would not prove anything about the editorial independence of Times journalists.

As Mostrous acknowledged, we published the Coca Cola donation in our funding list, which is accessible from every page on our website, including those he refers to and including those accessed via Twitter, and a donation stays on our website for at least two years after it is given. We are in the forefront of openness about donations and funding. Few, including The Times, would match us on that openness. Mostrous proposed to us in correspondence that we should also have declared donations in our retweets of the Guardian and Cancer Research UK articles. I find it hard to look at that suggestion seriously. In fact, the lack of seriousness in the whole piece about us undermines the very real meaning of conflict of interest. The more noise that is created with these kinds of constructed stories, where no evidence of inaccuracy or bias is demonstrated, the more genuine issues of conflict, such as data fabrication in papers and concealing research findings, get drowned out, while people rest back thinking job done. 

In the end charities like Sense About Science have to demonstrate our independence through our transparency and integrity. And journalists have to prove our lack of independence with more than conjecture and guilt by association.

Tracey Brown


Sense About Science