Observations Medicine and the Media

Who’s watching the watchdogs?

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.a2535 (Published 19 November 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a2535
  1. Lisa M Schwartz, associate professor of medicine, Center for Medicine and the Media, Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, Hanover, New Hampshire,
  2. Steven Woloshin, associate professor of medicine, Center for Medicine and the Media, Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice,
  3. Ray Moynihan, visiting editor, BMJ, and conjoint lecturer, University of Newcastle, Newcastle, Australia
  1. Correspondence to: S Woloshin steven.woloshin{at}dartmouth.edu

    Doctors should be wary of the increasing entanglement of medical journalists and the drug industry, warn Lisa Schwartz, Steven Woloshin, and Ray Moynihan

    As watchdogs the media play a vital role in highlighting interconnections between doctors, researchers, and the drug industry.1 2 3 But who watches the watchdogs? Financial ties between medical journalists and for-profit companies they cover in their reporting have received little attention in the media or from the research community.4 5 Such ties warrant scrutiny, not least because many of us first learn about new treatments from the news media, and these reports can affect the way the public uses health care.6 The media also affect medical practice by influencing the medical literature: journal articles that get media coverage are more likely to be subsequently cited, regardless of the article’s intrinsic value.7 To promote awareness and provoke debate we discuss three areas of “entanglement”: education of journalists, awards for journalists, and the actual practice of journalism.

    Education of journalists

    Industry sponsorship of training and further education of journalists now occurs in a variety of contexts—universities, conferences, and professional associations—raising similar concerns to those that apply to education of doctors.

    The University of North Carolina’s master’s degree in medical journalism, one of the first in the United States, has at least two important forms of financial relations with drug companies. Its post of Glaxo Wellcome distinguished professor of medical journalism is an endowed position created by a grant from the company worth $333 000 (£215 000; €260 000).8 Also, Pfizer offers a medical journalism scholarship at the university that aims “to improve the breadth and quality of reporting of health and medical issues in minority or disadvantaged communities.” The scholarship is worth $28 000 a year and also offers healthcare benefits.9

    The current Glaxo Wellcome professor, Tom …

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