The finest news money can buy?

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Is journalistic integrity now for sale in our culture? On Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013, the outside wrap of the Times Colonist ran an advertisement, on the front page, in a manner that could be misconstrued as news. Beneath the newspaper’s title flag was a full-page ad touting fall savings on home heating from AFD Fuels. On top of being under the flag in a way that could have been construed as front page news, the ad’s placement at the very least it suggests that the Times Colonist thought an advertisement was of more importance than what normally would be front-page news.

This seems to be part of a larger problem. Even some online scientific journals are publishing fake science for a fee. In effect, a paid advertisement is taking the place of real reporting and science.

According to National Public Radio (NPR), a contributor to the journal Science, named John Bohannon, wrote an article claiming to have found a new drug that supposedly cures cancer. He put in various flawed scientific procedures, such as testing the drug on cancer cells, but not on human cells as a control. Furthermore, he intentionally fudged the results. He says he then submitted it to many scientific journals, and claims to have ultimately achieved a 61 per cent acceptance rate. The article was accepted in 157 journals across the globe; it was rejected in 98. According to Bohannon, anyone with a high school level of science education could have spotted the errors in this paper and journals that offered to publish the article tended to offer to do so in exchange for publication fees of up to $3 100 (USD).

What do these incidents mean for journalistic and scientific integrity? They suggest that legitimate and objective reporting is simply a function of what one can pay rather than the merits and originality of one’s discoveries and thoughts. Contributors receive what is effectively a distorted point of view deliberately published as if it were news. This is particularly concerning in the science world where public policy makers, universities, and even lawyers require citations from scientific articles before hiring people or making arguments in their favour.

Moreover, these incidents create the impression that advertisements can take the place of news, both in importance and appearance, and effectively suggest that objective discussion and reporting of events and results can be replaced by the finest news money can buy.

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