Trial By Error: My Follow-Up Letter to Reuters

By David Tuller, DrPH

Earlier this month, as I have reported, I sent a letter to the Reuters global editor for “ethics and standards” about my concerns relating to last month’s hit piece on ME/CFS patients and me. (I put those words in quotation marks because I have seen little in the reporting and publication of this piece that would meet any legitimate journalistic understanding of “ethics and standards.”) After reviewing the matter, Reuters agreed to add the fact that I hold a current academic position at one of the world’s great universities–a detail that Kate Kelland, the reporter, apparently felt was irrelevant and of no interest to readers.

Yet the story still describes me–falsely–as a “former reporter.” So on Friday, I sent a follow-up letter to Alix Freedman, the editor I’d contacted. As of this posting, the story continues to contain this untrue statement about my professional life.

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Dear Ms Freedman–

This week, The Washington Post published a story called “Dental care is tough to find for people with autism, other developmental disorders.” The byline: David Tuller. (That’s me!)

I mention this in connection with my continuing concerns about Kate Kelland’s March 13th “special report” on ME/CFS. I appreciate Reuters’ recognition that it was inappropriate for Kelland to omit any mention of my academic position at Berkeley in the published article. This omission was particularly difficult to understand given that Kelland learned from the university in February that I currently have an academic appointment and have had one continuously for a decade. She chose not to share that salient information, for reasons neither she nor Reuters have deigned to explain.

However, while the updated version now includes my proper academic title, it still refers to me as a “former journalist.” As the Washington Post story indicates, that statement is categorically false. The genesis of this claim is also unclear. Kelland could have accurately called me a “former newspaper reporter/editor” or a “former lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism,” but she didn’t. As an expert in the English language, you surely know that no amount of linguistic acrobatics can justify translating either of those descriptions of my previous positions as “former journalist.”

Perhaps Kelland and Reuters are not aware that it is possible to be a working journalist without being a full-time reporter/editor at The San Francisco Chronicle or a lecturer at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. In my case, my half-time academic appointment at Berkeley involves investigating the ME/CFS literature, and I also have an active free-lance journalism career. The idea that a person can simultaneously be both an academic and a journalist should not really be a difficult concept for Kelland and Reuters to grasp.

I wrote this week’s Washington Post piece for Kaiser Health News and was well-paid for my efforts. My previous piece for KHN, which also involved dental costs, ran in the Well section of The New York Times last September. That story also involved payment. I am just finishing up another KHN article—this one about pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV infection. I will get paid for that as well.

Beyond those pieces, I spent three days last month on assignment for the journal Health Affairs in Portland, Oregon, reporting on changes in the city’s health care system. That 3,000-word feature will be published this summer by the journal, which includes reported journalistic articles as well as peer-reviewed research in every issue. Last September, Health Affairs published my reported article about what California is doing to address the public health impacts of climate change. I was paid for the latter and will be paid for the former.

These are all works of journalism unrelated to my ME/CFS investigation. Kelland did not ask me about these or other current journalism pursuits. She did not ask if I considered myself a “former journalist.” Of course, whether or not I currently earn part of my annual income by working as a journalist is not actually a matter of opinion—and certainly not Kelland’s opinion.

Since Reuters has reviewed my concerns and stands by Kelland’s story, can you please explain how you determined that portraying me as a “former journalist” is in accordance with the documented facts? By what metric do you consider me a “former” journalist? Reuters clearly has the freedom and authority to make ill-informed and self-serving decisions about the merits of Kelland’s piece. However, it is seriously disturbing that an entity that calls itself a news organization and touts its adherence to a revered set of “trust principles” is on record as “standing by” a self-evidently ridiculous statement about my work.

I have been a journalist for forty years; I have never been and am not now a “former journalist.” I still don’t understand what Kelland meant by the phrase or what inspired her to use it. I assume it was intended to be dismissive. In any event, her intentions are irrelevant here. It is a silly and untrue claim, and Reuters has an obligation to correct it. I shouldn’t have to be requesting this correction a second time.

Best–David

David Tuller, DrPH
Senior Fellow in Public Health and Journalism
Center for Global Public Health
University of California, Berkeley

{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Couch Turnip 30 April 2019, 10:21 am

    AN OPINION ARTICLE SHOULD BE CLEARLY LABELLED AS SUCH.
    Come on Reuters, read your own handbook -https://www.handbookreuters.com/freedom-from-bias/
    As I see it (MY OPINION!):
    Going by the handbook, Kelland’s article (see link below) looks biased and opinion-based, not based on fact and not ‘scrupulously fair and balanced’.
    [https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-science-social-media-specialreport/special-report-online-activists-are-silencing-us-scientists-say-idUKKBN1QU1ET]
    Going by the handbook, it should therefore be clearly labelled as an opinion article.
    Kelland –
    • Didn’t ask Tuller if he considered himself to be a former journalist.
    • Didn’t ask Tuller about his recent journalism work unrelated to his ME/CFS investigation.
    • Didn’t supply his academic position in the original article – now corrected, but way too late.
    • Did give Sharpe’s academic position at the top of the article, along with his photo backdrop of the ‘dreaming spires’ of Oxford.
    • Did (for his ‘backdrop’) cast Tuller as an ‘activist’ who ‘cut his teeth’ in the 1980s (this was irrelevant and implied ‘activism’ as a career, with no supporting evidence), and as ‘leading the campaign’ (again no evidence to support this).
    • Did mislead the reader by implying acceptance by Tuller of a campaigning role when he had denied being a campaigner.
    • Did seem to think it was OK for her to contact people to ask for information or their view, but not for Tuller to….. and also implied that Tuller wasn’t adequately qualified to present /report on the ME/CFS issue whilst writing with no equivalent qualification herself (or seemingly any science or health related degree).
    • Did use emotive language, such as ‘targeting’ (of researchers, rather than their work).
    • Didn’t mention all the experts who back Tuller’s assessment of the PACE Trial.
    (I wonder – what would Amal Clooney would make of this? ….and how long will it be before Kelland’s article is used to teach students how not to write a biased/fake news report?)
    COME ON REUTERS, DO THE NEEDFUL. THIS IS EMBARRASSINGLY BAD.

  • Tina Rodwell 30 April 2019, 5:15 pm

    You make me breathless with what you do and your professionalism. Being open, honest and truthful shows Reuters up and exposes them for what they are. Sadly no one seems to hold them to account.

    Always a pleasure to read your articles as it puts back faith in true journalism.

  • Nancy Blake 1 May 2019, 5:44 am

    Persistent labelling all advocates as patients v the BPS lot as ‘scientists’ is a demonstration of the power the latter have over the mainstream media…..of course they will misrepresent the credentials of one of our leading advocates.

    I recently came across a comprehensive account of the history and politics of the BPS model which is central to the political goal of dismantling our entire health and welfare structure, placing it in private hands. It turns out that the PACE Trial is key in this entire right-wing project. No wonder they will do all they can to bring Tuller down.

    ,Rogue company Unum’s profiteering hand in the government’s work, health and disability green paper – Politics and Insights,

    https://politicsandinsights.org/2016/11/29/rogue-company-unum-had-a-profiteering-hand-in-the-governments-work-health-and-disability-green-paper/

  • Couch Turnip 1 May 2019, 6:16 am

    I tried to post a comment yesterday but it seems to have bounced. (I suspect that it was a bit too long.) Anyhow, the gist was that Reuters should read their own handbook-https://www.handbookreuters.com/freedom-from-bias/.

    If they did then I suspect they’d conclude, as I did, that Kelland’s article falls way short of their high standards and should therefore be labelled as an ‘opinion’ piece rather than passing as factual news. It’s not just the issues that David has raised here. There are other areas that I find deeply troubling, such as the emotive language used (‘targeting’ researchers rather than their work), describing David as an ‘activist’ and implying that he’s had some sort of a career in activism. Where is the evidence? And how is it that Kelland has the right to contact people and write about these things but when Tuller does the same he’s charged with harassment and being underqualified? Was that the purpose of calling him an ex-journalist, to somehow remove his right to do these things? That’s the way it comes across to me.

    Come on Reuters, this was an ‘opinion’ piece. It’s time to label it as such.

  • Cris Guerra 8 May 2019, 12:41 pm

    Congratulations on the courage to seek answers to your indignation.

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