Blowing smoke: Times makes silly, one-sided claims about e-cigs
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Published: 29-Apr-2014

The Food and Drug Administration recently proposed new regulations for e-cigarettes and some tobacco products, and the New York Times was the first to report on the details of the new rules. 

But to get that scoop, the Times sacrificed some of its journalistic integrity, it would seem.

In its story on the new regulations, the Times explained how it came upon the information before the FDA released it to the public: “F.D.A. officials gave journalists an outline of the new rules on Wednesday, but required that they not talk to industry or public health groups until after Thursday’s formal release of the document.”

There’s nothing wrong with the first half of that process. Policymakers and politicians frequently hand-out information to reporters ahead of major announcements, usually with the caveat that none of it is allowed to be published until the prescribed time.

Such “embargoes” — as they are called in the business — are a lifesaver for reporters because it allows us to digest the information ahead of time and provide additional perspective to the public than would be otherwise possible.

But the second half of that statement — where the Times agreed not to discuss the information with certain groups of people — is fundamentally flawed.

Essentially, the Times agreed to feed the public information about new regulations, but without being able to talk to any of the people affected by the regulations.

What did that leave them in terms of perspective? Only those who favored the new regulations, of course.

That’s how you ended up with the following statement in the 10th paragraph of the story:

“You won’t be able to mix nicotine in your bathtub and sell it anymore,” said David B. Abrams, executive director of the Schroeder National Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies at the Legacy Foundation.

Really? Are there people out there making nicotine in their bathtubs and using the concoction to fill e-cigarettes?

If there were, I doubt it would even be much of a concern. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could stay in business for very long with a make-your-own-nicotine-in-your-bathtub approach when competing with Big Tobacco.

Maybe Abrams has evidence bathtub nicotine is a serious problem. But if he did, it wasn’t discussed anywhere else in the story.

More likely: Abrams, who works for an anti-smoking research group, wants to strengthen the cause of regulations on nicotine, because that’s what he’s paid to do. And he’s clearly not afraid of a little hyperbole in the name of making his point.

Any adequately skeptical reporter should have challenged such an assertion — or, at the very least, chuckled at the notion and left the comment in his or her notebook — instead of using it in a story without any verification of its accuracy or even the ability to let an e-cigarette manufacturer respond to the claim.

Because, again, the Times already agreed not to talk to anyone who would actually be affected by the regulations.  You know, the folks allegedly cooking up nicotine in their bathtubs to poison your children, according to Abrahms.

To be fair, the Times followed up on the initial story with a weekend story that gave voice to the industry and smokers who will be hurt by the proposed regulations. But that’s not enough to make up for shoddy work on the first piece.

In and of themselves, embargoes aren’t bad. But when the government sets qualifications on who a newspaper can talk to as part of an embargo — and the paper agrees to those rules — reporters and editors must step extra carefully to present information as fairly as possible.

One thing they should always avoid is giving an open microphone to one side of an issue without allowing the other side — or even good common sense — to refute obviously hyperbolic claims.

Boehm can be reached at EBoehm@Watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @EricBoehm87

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