Coca-Cola Funded Media Conferences to Sway Journalists: Report

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Coca-Cola funded multiple journalism conferences in an attempt to get members of the media to create more favorable coverage of the industry, according to a new report published in the peer-reviewed British Medical Journal, or BMJ.

Credit: Adrian Scottow/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

The report, by Paul Hacker, said, Industry money was used to covertly influence journalists with the message that exercise is a bigger problem than sugar consumption in the obesity epidemic, documents obtained under freedom of information laws show.”

He added, “The documents detail how Coca-Cola funded journalism conferences at a U.S. university in an attempt to create favorable press coverage of sugar sweetened drinks. When challenged about funding of the series of conferences, the academics involved weren’t forthcoming about industry involvement.”

Related: 30 Percent of Kids Have at Least Two Sugary Drinks Daily

Coca-Cola funded several journalism conferences at the University of Colorado. “Emails and documents obtained by the BMJ under freedom of information laws that that Coca-Cola began approaching professors at the university in early 2011 in attempt to sway journalists,” per a BMJ news release. “The tactic bore fruit. In one example, a CNN reporter attended the 2014 journalism conference and later contributed to a story that argued that obesity’s cause could be lack of exercise, not consumption of sugary soft drinks.”

The news release goes on to say that “Critics told the BMJ that Coca-Cola’s $37,000 support for that conference and the resulting story was a better bargain than an advertisement placed on CNN’s website.”

Allegations of news people being swooned by the tobacco lobby have swirled for years. Per the BMJ investigation, “Attempting to derail the effect of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 1993 report on secondhand smoke, the tobacco industry successfully placed stories in major print publications about the reports ‘scientific weaknesses to help ‘build considerable reasonable doubt…particularly among consumers. Even journalists can fall victim to well-orchestrated public relations efforts.”

Journalist Kristin Jones blew the whistle about the Coca-Cola conferences to the National Press Foundation.

Related: Waiting at Vending Machines May Help You Make Healthier Choices

After one such conference, James Hill, a professor of Pediatrics at University of Colorado who for a while ran a “science-based collaboration” between Coca-Cola and the University of Colorado called Global Energy Balance Network, emailed a Coca-Cola executive saying the conference was a “home run” and “The journalists told us this was an amazing event and they generated a lot of stories.”

For their part, “A Coca-Cola representative said that in September 2015 the company disclosed on its website the $45,000 funding to the University of Colorado for the journalism training program in the spring of 2012,” per the BMJ report.

Before 2015 it wasn’t clear where the funding for the journalism program was coming from, Hacker wrote. “The University of Colorado told the BMJ that the university funded the 2014 journalism conference with $37,500, provided primarily by Coca-Cola Company for the Global Energy Balance Network. A university spokesperson told the BMJ, “Essentially funding for the conference came from a gift from Coke.”

Hill and Peters have not responded to the BMJ’s requests for comment.

A professional journalist nearly 30 years, David Heitz started his career at the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa before moving to Los Angeles. He led the Glendale News-Press to best small daily newspaper in the state (CNPA) as managing editor and also worked as executive news editor of the Press-Telegram. He worked briefly as deputy news editor of the Detroit News before returning to the Quad-Cities, where he has worked as a freelance medical writer since 2012 for several national websites. He recently purchased his childhood home and says he truly is “living the dream.” 
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