When Newspapers Collaborate with NGOs

By Keith Kloor | August 24, 2013 12:01 pm

As far as explainers go, I thought this Guardian piece discussing possible links between climate change and extreme weather was pretty good. What’s interesting to me is that it was written by Bob Ward, the policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.  It’s part of a larger Guardian series called, “The Ultimate Climate Change FAQ.”

Let’s leave aside the questionable decision to let a PR person author an important article on a complex climate science question. (I’d rather see a Guardian staffer’s byline on such an article, preferably one who has written on climate change.) I’m not sure if this blurring of the line is a Guardian quirk or reflective of the UK’s journalism culture.

Regardless, if this journalistic collaboration between the Guardian and an NGO mission-oriented center is acceptable practice, then I think the Guardian should consider also collaborating with other similar entities organizations, like the Science Media Center. Perhaps the Guardian can start a new explainer series called, “The Ultimate GMO FAQ.” And Fiona Fox, the Science Media Center’s executive director, can author factual articles on biotechnology and genetically modified crops.

Seems like a logical extension, right?

UPDATE: The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment is “a university research centre,” Bob Ward corrects me on Twitter. Ward holds the same title for the Center for Climate Change Economics and Policy, which states: On it’s website:

Our mission it to advance public and private action on climate change through rigorous, innovative research into economics and policy.

On Twitter, Ward asks me: “So what’s your gripe then?”

I dont really have a gripe. I’m suggesting that the person who does PR for a mission-based outfit such as his probably shouldn’t be doing journalism for the Guardian unless it’s labeled as commentary. But since he is, why not open the door to other mission-based outfits that also aim to inform the public about scientific facts?

  • mem_somerville

    Or Rothamsted. Or the Innes Centre. Yeah–that would be great.

  • Robert Wilson

    Another example of this was the Guardian re-posting Greenpeace material without being clear it was Greenpeace. Instead of Greenpeace EnergyDesk they simply wrote EnergyDesk. Of course a great deal of the stuff that appears on the Guardian’s environment website has been fed to them by the NGOs (and 1/3 of the content in each piece is normally boiler plate quotes from NGOs), so them re-publishing NGO material is simply getting rid of the middle man in some respects.

    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2013/jan/15/offshore-wind-grid-cost

  • http://www.facebook.com/jane.kerr.798 Jane Kerr

    The Guardian has practically handed over its environment section to the propagandists of Skeptical Science these days.

  • Billy___Bob

    Let the Guardian die of self-inflicted BS.

  • JackSavage

    Bob Ward must know where all the bodies are buried over at the Guardian. He appears to have immediate access there to publish what he likes. Us regular readers have grown used to it and discount his partisan excursions accordingly. He might deceive a new, casual reader of the (loss-making, circulation-dropping) Guardian into thinking he was some kind of journalist but there are very very few new, casual readers of that once fine newspaper. His offerings, and those of the entire environmental section there show a complete embrace of the concept of imminent catastrophic man-made CO2 driven global warming as a settled scientific truth.
    It is not a secret and the Guardian or its writers have no sense that this could be interpreted as “not quite right”…Hence the “What is your gripe?” reply. It is not a bug…it is a feature!

  • retward

    The headline to this article is very misleading. Neither the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment nor the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy is an NGO. They are both university research centres. The Institute is based at London School of Economics and Political Science, and the Centre is hosted jointly by the University of Leeds and the London School of Economics and Political Science:

    http://www.lse.ac.uk/GranthamInstitute/About/home.aspx

    http://www.cccep.ac.uk/AboutUs/home.aspx

    Keith Kloor is entitled to express his opinion that the staff of university climate change research centres should not be writing FAQs about climate change for the website of a newspaper. However, I think that we are better placed than most to provide accurate information about this issue.

    His comments about the university research centres being “mission-based outfits” is rather odd. Most universities have missions these days. Indeed, New York University, at which Keith is an adjunct professor of journalism, has a mission statement: http://www.nyu.edu/about.html

    It seems the facts don’t quite match the spirit of this blog posting!

    • mem_somerville

      I didn’t take from this post the outcome you got, apparently.

      But it’s not clear to me: would you support similar pieces on GMOs from the likes of folks at Rothamsted or Innes?

    • Nullius in Verba

      It’s a distinction without a difference. The LSE is itself a charity. The Grantham Research Institute is funded by the Grantham Foundation, which does appear to be an NGO. (And also the Global Green Growth Institute, which while it is a non-profit that appears to operate much like any other green NGO, was apparently set up by governments, so I’ll concede the technicality.)

      The definition seems to be a bit vague, but NGO generally refers to a non-government organisation: a legally constituted corporation operated independently of government, generally for wider social purposes rather than as a for-profit business.

      The Grantham Foundation certainly is. The research centres are working for it, and would appear to fit the definition too. The GGGI is a bit ambiguous, but fits the profile.

      I’m not sure why Bob is so keen to make the distinction, unless it was their hope that by using this financial arrangement they could persuade people they were just an ordinary independent university department offering impartial scientific advice. If so, nobody’s convinced. They’re seen by everyone as paid partisans, whatever their precise institutional categorisation.

      On the other hand, if it’s his argument that it shouldn’t matter how they’re funded, that only the accuracy of their data and arguments should matter, then that’s a welcome point that I think he should make more directly. It wouldn’t matter if he was funded directly by Greenpeace or Exxon/BP, the argument still stands or falls on the empirical evidence alone.

      • Nullius in Verba

        Oh, and by the way, I thought the article itself was pretty good, too. Apart from the last paragraph, there’s not a lot to argue with at all. Well done!

      • jh

        Interesting. Are there more NGOs hiding under the guise of academic research institutions?

        Much of NPRs reporting is done on a collaborative basis with NGOs. Not an especially good practice in my view.

    • thrib

      The casual reader might not realise that “retward” is the Bob Ward mentioned in the post.

      It’s all about communication.

      Piss up. Brewery.

  • kenville

    This is a legitimate and particularly disturbing concern, given that climate change “science” is 99% politics to where policy is the cause and not the effect of research dollars and (the illusion of) consensus.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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