STATS responds to Consumer Reports smear tactics

Consumer Reports posted a response on its blog to STATS criticism of its recent report on BPA. The following is a letter sent by STATS President, S. Robert Lichter Ph.D to the magazine:

In their response to Trevor Butterworth’s criticisms, Andrea Rock and Urvashi Rangan devoted most of their efforts to trying to discredit STATS by linking it to industy. Luckily, this is a scientific debate, in which the best science will ultimately win, regardless of the rhetorical tactics adopted by some participants. Mr. Butterworth will respond further to the scientific issues. But it is necessary to reply immediately to the institutional allegations.

The Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) was founded in 1984 to conduct social scientific studies of media coverage. The Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) was founded ten years later with a different mission – to improve the transmission of scientific and quantitative information to the public. They are independent non-profit organizations that share some administrative personnel and expenses; both are affiliates of George Mason University. The STATS websites describes them as “sister organizations.”

To avoid the appearance of any conflict of interest in its critiques, STATS does not accept industry funding. However, Rock and Rangen claim to have examined documents showing that STATS has received funding from ExxonMobil. Since no such funding has taken place to my knowledge, I call on the authors either to publicly release any such documents so that everyone can examine them or to retract this assertion.

The authors also cast aspersions on CMPA for having once done a study for a tobacco company. Specifically, in 1994 CMPA conducted a content analysis on media coverage of tobacco for Philip Morris. CMPA has done many such social scientific content analyses commissioned by groups in both the private and non-profit sectors. For example, the same year we studied media coverage of tobacco, we examined television’s coverage of Hispanics for the National Council of La Raza.

The most salient question is whether, as the authors intimate, CMPA’s critical faculties were bought off by Big Tobacco money. As it happens, during the 1990’s we were actively involved in conducting and publicizing research on the risks of tobacco in a series of articles, newsletters, and public statements, including Congressional testimony.

The publications began appearing in 1993 (the year before Philip Morris commissioned a content analysis) and culminated in a 1999 Yale University Press book showing that cancer researchers not only “placed tobacco in a league of its own among cancer agents,” they believed the media understates the cancer risks associated with tobacco.

STATS also has an extensive history of criticizing the health risks of tobacco. For a lengthier explication of all this material, click here.

Rhetorical devices aside, it is well to remember that taking industry money isn’t the same as doing industry’s bidding.

S. Robert Lichter
Professor of Communication
Director, CMPA and STATS
George Mason University

2 Responses to STATS responds to Consumer Reports smear tactics

  1. Diane says:

    Is it Consumer Reports or Consumer Affairs?

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