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Experts criticise industry sponsorship of articles on health policy in Australian newspaper

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d6903 (Published 25 October 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d6903
  1. Melissa Sweet
  1. 1Sydney

Ethicists and journalism leaders have raised concerns about drug industry sponsorship of health journalism in the broadsheet newspaper the Australian, owned by News Ltd, part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

The newspaper’s Health of the Nation series, which appeared on 15 October and includes video footage from a meeting of health policy experts and articles on health policy (www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/health-of-the-nation/if-i-were-health-minister/story-fn9iqmqf-1226167069907), advises readers that it is an “independent project” by journalists and supported by the Australian Medicines Industry, an initiative of Medicines Australia, which represents the Australian drug industry.

Another feature about general practice and health reform was entitled, “Weary troopers on the front lines of an overburdened system” (www.news.com.au/weary-troopers-on-the-front-lines-of-an/story-fn9iqmqf-1226167069588). The articles are accompanied by prominent advertisements for the drug industry.

Medicines Australia said that the arrangement arose out of meetings between its advertising agency and News Ltd’s promotions and advertising teams, which “recognised common interests.”

“News [Ltd] was interested in creating a Health of the Nation series and vehicle to stimulate consideration, discussion, and debate about health issues in Australia with its readership,” said a Medicines Australia statement to the BMJ.

“Medicines Australia was interested in a communication platform to increase awareness of the Australian medicines industry as ‘supporting Australia’s health’ and get Australians thinking about the industry.”

Medicines Australia, which also sponsors health journalism awards run by the National Press Club of Australia, would not reveal the value of the deal with the Australian, saying that it was “commercial in confidence.”

The Australian’s editor, Clive Mathieson, said that editorial independence had been maintained. “There is no way the Australian would have agreed to any commercial relationship that compromised its editorial independence and integrity,” he told the BMJ.

“I would defy anyone to think there was any bias in any of that coverage—anything that was overtly favourable to Medicines Australia or the pharma industry.”

But Gary Schwitzer, publisher of the US based health journalism watchdog HealthNewsReview.org, said that the arrangement raised concerns about conflicts of interest and could affect trust in editorial decision making.

“No matter how you spin it, this is the drug industry influencing public discussions in one more infectious way,” he said. “Journalists should be sniffing out and exposing such deals, not being party to them.”

Charles Ornstein, president of the US based Association of Health Care Journalists and a senior reporter at the public interest news website ProPublica, said that keeping a line between advertising and editorial was important for news organisations’ credibility.

Traditionally “reporters didn’t know which advertisers would appear alongside their stories, and advertising sales reps didn’t know what stories would appear in the paper,” he said.

“More to the point, whenever ideas for news coverage are generated from the marketing or advertising departments—not from the newsroom—one must question whether it was simply because an advertiser desired it.

“Either the public needs more news and information on a given topic or it doesn’t. Letting outside commercial interests decide that, rather than the newsroom, is always a slippery slope.”

Christopher Jordens, a senior lecturer in bioethics at the University of Sydney’s Centre for Values, Ethics and Law in Medicine, said that it was disturbing that the newspaper would accept drug industry funding to underwrite health journalism.

“The drug industry knows that readers are more likely to attend to its promotional hype if it’s presented in the context of ‘serious’ journalism, and the Australian is willing to make deals accordingly,” he said.

“Health journalism is thus reduced to mere wallpaper against which to display the main product: industry PR.”

However, Carol Bennett, chief executive officer of the Consumers Health Forum of Australia and one of the experts at the newspaper’s roundtable meeting, said she believed that editorial content had not been influenced by the sponsorship.

The series had provided a welcome opportunity to have substantial media space devoted to complex health policy issues, she said, and the sponsorship had been transparently declared.

“Sometimes you have to weigh up the pros and cons. In this instance it let us get out messages that wouldn’t otherwise be out there in the public domain,” she said.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d6903

Footnotes

  • Competing interests: MS is involved with a study funded by Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council that is investigating relations between the media and health related industries.