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Observations Reality Check

Is journalism the drug industry’s new dance partner?

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d6978 (Published 02 November 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d6978
  1. Ray Moynihan, author, journalist, and conjoint lecturer, University of Newcastle, Australia
  1. Ray.Moynihan{at}newcastle.edu.au

Exploring the new frontier in influence peddling

Just as many doctors contemplate an end to their dance with drug company marketers, a fresh new crew is stepping lively onto the floor: journalists and media organisations looking for easy ways to fund their reporting, travel, and education.

The BMJ reported last week that the Murdoch empire’s flagship newspaper in Australia has accepted an undisclosed amount of sponsorship money from the drug industry for a series of articles on health policy—and that the idea arose from a meeting between advertising agents.1

Defending the deal, the Australian’s editor said that independence and integrity were maintained; but as others pointed out, this new form of financial closeness between journalists and the companies they scrutinise raises real concerns.

A few years ago the industry body Medicines Australia started sponsoring annual journalism awards, with the prize for the health journalist of the year award including $A1000 cash (£660; €760; $US1060) and an international study tour. Presumably all recipients will swear that the award and the world trip had no undesirable effects on their future coverage, and they may well be right. But what we’re witnessing is a slow and subtle attempt to buy influence and goodwill within the media, which in general have become increasingly rigorous in their coverage of the unhealthy aspects of pharmaceutical marketing.

Spreading around cash, free travel, and sponsorship has an effect—if it didn’t, the industry wouldn’t do it. Moreover, as the Institute of Medicine’s landmark 2009 report made clear, there’s a mountain of evidence from the world of healthcare indicating that financial ties bring the risk of “undue influence” and may “jeopardise” patient care, scientific integrity, and objective education.2 The hollow claims of overpaid “key opinion leaders” that they can regularly take the money and stay independent look less and less credible by the day.

As any former drug salesperson will tell you, it’s all about building relationships. It’s about creating friendships, alliances, and back channels, lubricated with drug company largesse—whether within universities, hospitals, or, now, media companies. Next time there’s a call to the editor’s office from a drug company, it’s not just another promotional player on the line, it’s a co-sponsor of the paper’s journalism. To engage with these sophisticated public relations strategies is to endorse them.

The drug industry sponsorship at News Limited’s the Australian is simply the latest example in a growing global trend.3 In the past few years there’s been controversy over the National Press Foundation in the United States accepting annual sponsorship from Pfizer for an “all expenses paid” visit for health journalists to an educational conference.4 Again, the organisation accepting the sponsorship says that the money has no effect on the educational programme—which we have no reason to doubt. But there’s little doubt that Pfizer sees the deal as a chance to associate itself with a respected foundation and slowly to spread goodwill about the sponsor among the annual cohorts of journalists who attend. Presumably it’s an attempt to buy a better corporate image, at a time when Pfizer has been forced to pay out $2.3bn in civil and criminal penalties to settle the biggest healthcare fraud case in the history of the US Justice Department.5

What’s not clear is why educational outfits or media organisations are so keen to lend their credibility to companies with fistfuls of dollars seeking new friends. The simple answer is money—which may be an added bonus at first but may soon become an expected source of ongoing revenue and very hard to do without. Yet it is possible to say no. Unlike other groups, the US based Association of Health Care Journalists has a strict policy of accepting no funds from for-profit healthcare companies—and not so coincidentally their representatives often lead criticism of the new deals between drug companies and media outlets.1

In 2008 in the BMJ Lisa Schwartz and Steve Woloshin, professors at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, and I laid out several examples of drug industry sponsorship of journalism education, awards, and practice and urged more scrutiny of this new form of entanglement.3

As it happens, one study of the financial ties between journalists and the industry is currently under way in Australia. It’s qualitative and is based on interviews, and although no results are yet available, the investigator and medical ethicist Wendy Lipworth, from the University of New South Wales, told me that she’s “worried by the broader impacts” of relations such as those being built between the Australian and the drug industry. Although she says that it’s clearly valuable for journalists to report on commercial products, she’s concerned that direct or indirect financial ties may be having a “more insidious, unconscious effects on reporting, in the same way that they can impact on prescribing and medical research. It’s exactly the same set of issues.”

One of the most insidious effects will be self censorship—invisible, immeasurable, but chilling in its effect on the free flow of public debate. Already so much decision making in healthcare takes place in the shadows of drug industry sponsorship. At a time when the medical establishment is seriously asking how it might start to move more into the sunlight of genuine independence, it seems ironic and tragic that elements within journalism may be moving in the other direction. When a drug company has a valuable product or a valid point to make, let’s report on it fairly and accurately, without having to sell our credibility and threaten the very future of journalism.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d6978

Footnotes

  • Publisher’s competing interests: The BMJ Group runs an annual awards scheme for innovations by health professionals that help patients, which is partly funded by sponsorship, including from some pharmaceutical companies.

References