Observations Medicine and the Media

Naming names: is there an (unbiased) doctor in the house?

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.a930 (Published 23 July 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a930
  1. Jeanne Lenzer, medical investigative journalist, New York,
  2. Shannon Brownlee, senior fellow, New America Foundation, Washington, DC
  1. Correspondence to: J Lenzer jeanne.lenzer{at}gmail.com

    Journalists often forget that conflicts of interest may bias the opinions of their expert sources. Jeanne Lenzer and Shannon Brownlee explain how, in an attempt to disentangle commercial messages from science, they have compiled a list of nearly 100 independent medical experts to whom reporters can turn

    Ho hum, another medical scandal in the news. Earlier this month US Senator Chuck Grassley announced his intention to investigate Alan Schatzberg, chairman of the psychiatry department at Stanford University and the incoming president of the American Psychiatric Association, about his multimillion dollar interest in Corcept Therapeutics, a company that is seeking to market a drug that Dr Schatzberg is researching with federal funding, and the extent to which he disclosed and was required to disclose that interest to Stanford.1 In June the New York Times broke a front page story about the alleged failure of three top research psychiatrists at Harvard, each of them a proponent of drug treatment for psychiatric conditions in children, to report that since 2000 they had collectively received more than $4.2m (£2.1m; €2.6m) from various drug companies.2

    After ignoring the growing controversy over conflict of interest for years, journalists now seem only too happy to expose wrongdoing in medicine. Yet when it comes to reporting medical news, those self same reporters often seem to forget that conflicts of interest might also bias the opinions of their expert sources. The media are filled with happy talk about “medical breakthroughs” that is based on information gathered from sources with ties to the industry. Yet simply knowing that conflicts of interest can create bias doesn’t answer the question of which studies we ought to believe. Because journalists fail to seek out sources who can offer an independent perspective, many medical stories in the popular media are either unbalanced …

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