Sponsored content’s slippery slope: UC Davis and WaPo laud ‘Moringa, the next superfood’

By | October 31, 2018

The University of California at Davis (UC Davis) has partnered with the Washington Post (WaPo) to publish an article in which a significant conflict of interest is not disclosed, and where claims of major health benefits aren’t supported by adequate evidence.

The article — ‘Moringa, the next superfood‘ — was published earlier this month. It’s the seventh such article that the renowned agricultural university has paid the paper to publish using WaPo’s  “WP-Brand Studio“: the “native advertising” branch of the highly revered paper.

Native advertising is paid content that is designed to look less like traditional advertising, but more like journalism (as if it’s “native” to the publication).

It provides advertisers (in this case UC Davis) with the reach, credibility, and authority of a popular and trusted newspaper. It provides news outlets like WaPo — and others who’ve adopted native advertising such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, and CNN to name a few — with a new income source, and hopefully a form of advertising that readers will find more alluring than repulsive.

But, as we’ve reported before, it’s a slippery slope precisely because it blurs the distinction between marketing and journalism — leaving readers unsure if what they’re reading is actually news that’s been carefully vetted by editors, or promotional content more akin to the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing.

“My mom sent me this article because one of her friends — who’s quite savvy and knows quite a bit about moringa — didn’t recognize this as paid content,” said Parke Wilde, PhD, a food economist at Tufts University.

“I think that if universities and newspapers are going to cooperate on sponsored content they need to not only make the sponsorship crystal clear to readers, but also be totally transparent when they’re asked questions about the nature of the relationship.”

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Actually, two conflicts of interest

The  moringa superfood article was written by a UC Davis science writer. It quotes four UC Davis researchers but no independent sources. The most prominently featured researcher has a patent pending (US No. 14683730) for extracting bioactive compounds from the moringa tree. This was not disclosed in the article. Why not?

“It was an oversight at the time of the interviews,” said Melissa Blouin, the newly appointed Director of News and Media Relations at UC Davis, who was not involved in the article’s publication.

“We’ve spoken with the researcher and writer involved and our plan is to now add the conflict of interests to the article; first, that the researcher does have a relevant patent pending, but also that she’s a paid consultant with Kuli Kuli Foods, the company featured in the video that accompanies the article. Although there were multiple editors involved with this piece, the final sign-off was the responsibility of our office of strategic communications here at UC Davis.”

Beyond the conflicts of interest lies a deeper concern: the use of overtly promotional language that implies wide-ranging health benefits of moringa, despite the fact that the existing evidence can’t support it. When asked about this disconnect the best official response UC Davis could offer was this: “We stand by the story.”

Fanning the flames of food fadism

The article suggests that moringa (“the ‘miracle tree’ that could help feed the world”) has these benefits:

  • “the potential to simultaneously treat both malnutrition and obesity”
  • “has high levels of antioxidants …that help reduce inflammation which we know is underlying a lot of chronic health conditions including cancer , obesity, diabetes, and malnutrition”
  • “a few clinical studies in India have shown moringa can reduce blood sugar and cholesterol levels”
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Although the article does well to caution that more studies are needed, it falls short in providing this important context: these health claims are predominantly based on in-vitro (laboratory) studies, rodent research, and a handful of very small observational studies in humans.

Yoni Freedhoff, MD

“There are two problems here,” says Yoni Freedhoff, MD, medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute at the University of Ottawa and a HealthNewsReview.org contributor. “First, if your best evidence involves in-vitro, animal, or surrogate endpoint models — without looking into true clinical endpoints — there aren’t actionable conclusions that can be drawn.”

In short, these kinds of studies can’t prove that moringa is responsible for any of the reputed benefits listed above. Freedhoff adds:

“Second, the promotion of a single food as a ‘superfood’ only fans the flames of food fadism. It perpetuates the erroneous belief that health can be dumbed down to ‘eat this, but not that.’ That just encourages scientific illiteracy as a whole.”

Why this matters

Why would a much-revered newspaper like the Washington Post — at a time when it has been accused by the White House and others of printing fake news and lies — give credence to their detractors by pursuing a revenue source that blurs the distinction between careful journalism and borderline boosterism?

Perhaps they can argue “transparency”;  that the sponsored article is clearly labeled in the upper left corner:

Or that this appears (after a link to UC Davis content) at the very end of the article:

This content is paid for and provided by an advertiser and published by WP BrandStudio. The Washington Post newsroom and WP BrandStudio were not involved in the creation of this content. Learn more about WP BrandStudio.

But these vague disclaimers appear to clash with how WP BrandStudio promotes itself on its website:

“At the Washington Post, getting the story right — and read — is in our DNA … (we bring) the latest and greatest technology to support best-in-class news and analysis … to make your brand objectives come true … the kind of content that gets read, shared, and acted on.”

Really? Because they clearly didn’t get the moringa story right. Where’s the news and analysis? And how exactly does WP BrandStudio and UC Davis want readers to act on the quasi-promotional  content? Incorporate moringa into their diets based on insufficient evidence that’s presented in an imbalanced way?

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In a recent interview with the Native Advertising Institute this is how Annie Granatstein, Head of WP BrandStudio, described their work:

“We focus first on finding the best narrative that achieves the brands goals and overlaps with our audience’s interests … editing it for Washington Post style and tone”

With native advertising stories being so seamlessly integrated into vetted news content — even with disclaimers — can readers be expected to recognize this as promotional when the explicit goal of native advertising is to disguise advertising?

A 2016 study — co-authored by Contently.com and the Tow-Knight Journalism School at CUNY — suggests not. Roughly 3 out of 4 people were unable to identify native ads as advertising. One-third of readers actually thought it was “editorial content.”

And this is worrisome given that a Wall Street Journal article published earlier this year projected spending on native advertising in the U.S. will reach almost $ 33 billion by the end of this year. In 2019 that number is expected to surpass $ 40 billion … accounting for the majority of total digital display ad spending.

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