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Chronicle, biotech columnist wrestle with conflict of interest

Duncan reassessing Chronicle column, role with BioAgenda


Responding to allegations of a conflict of interest, the San Francisco Chronicle has decided to shift the essays of a biotechnology columnist with ties to the industry from its regular news pages to the Sunday Insight section where partisan viewpoints are commonly expressed.

Meanwhile, the columnist, David Ewing Duncan, says he's reconsidering whether he'll continue to write the column. In a telephone interview from Boston, Duncan said he's also pondering whether to reduce his role with BioAgenda, a company he founded that is primarily funded by the biotech industry.

Peter Sussman, a former Chronicle staffer and member of the Society of Professional Journalists' national ethics committee praised both parties for making an effort to resolve the conflict between Mr. Duncan's interest in BioAgenda and the neutrality expected of a journalist writing about biotech issues.

Journalism ethics bar journalists from accepting money from those they write about in order to avoid the reality or perception that outside employment affects their news judgment. While the Chronicle has forbidden Duncan to mention the specific companies which sponsor BioAgenda, the subject of his column is developments in the biotech and health science industries.

Too early to tell

It's too early to tell, Mr. Sussman cautioned, whether these steps eliminate public concern over potential damage to the Chronicle's credibility.

"At this point I guess I'm going to step back." said Mr. Duncan, a prize-winning science journalist based in San Francisco. "The column is on standby at the moment. My first loyalty is to my integrity as a journalist and to not have any appearance of a conflict of interest."

Kenn Altine, associate managing editor at the Chronicle, said Insight is an idea section, not a news section, a place where journalists and non-journalists can raise issues. At the end of Mr. Duncan's columns he would be identified as executive director of BioAgenda, Mr. Altine said. However, BioAgenda's sponsorship by the biotech industry would not be part of the credit line.

BioAgenda would be represented as a "think tank that hosts forums and events that bring together scientists, ethicists, entrepreneurs, journalists and industry leaders for a critical assessment of biotech and cutting-edge life sciences."

BioAgenda is part of MindBend Communications LLC. It has raised more than $250,000 from companies including Johnson and Johnson Pharmaceutical Research & Development, IBM, Sequenom, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Hewlett-Packard and S.R. One, a venture capital fund owned by drug-maker GlaxoSmithKline.

Media influence offered

Until two weeks ago when the controversy became public, BioAgenda's Web site offered sponsors "media exposure in influential media publications and outlets." It continues to promise contributors "special placement in program literature, events, and publications, reports and web pages."

Mr. Duncan said, however, that BioAgenda's underwriters have agreed they would have no influence on his columns. Mr. Altine of the Chronicle defended this "firewall" between Mr. Duncan the journalist and Mr. Duncan the executive director of BioAgenda. "I did not see an inherent conflict of interest. But as it evolved there became a perceived conflict," he explained.

Society of Professional Journalists ethics committee member Sussman said the neutrality expected on news pages is somewhat relaxed in sections where readers anticipate partisan opinions. "One goes to Insight the same way one goes to an op-ed page with the sense that you are reading potentially partisan views, that this is a forum for agenda-driven subject matter," he explained. "So it certainly mitigates some of the problems I had with the original arrangement."

Chronicle ought to disclose

He added, however, that the Chronicle ought to disclose BioAgenda's industry sponsorship at the bottom of Mr. Duncan's columns.

In interviews Friday and Monday, Mr. Duncan expressed anguish over having to decide between his role with BioAgenda, which he described as an unbiased forum for raising important social questions about biotech, and his role as a newspaper columnist.

"This is all something that's for the good, both of these projects," he said. "I did screw up by leaving myself open to the appearance of a conflict of interest, and as a result both things are going to suffer."

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