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Sponsored journalism award shocks Australian media

BMJ 2001; 323 doi: (Published 24 November 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;323:1258
  1. Melissa Sweet, writer on health for “The Bulletin” magazine
  1. Australia; and on media issues for “Australian Doctor”

    F ancy a trip to Paris? You will fly business class, stay at a luxury hotel, dine well, and attend a conference in your area of interest.

    The pharmaceutical industry is well known for using such incentives to build relationships with key opinion leaders in the medical profession. Less well known, perhaps, is that journalists are also the recipients of such largess.

    When a rash of stories about impotency cropped up in the Australian media a few years ago—with headlines such as “impotence rate set to skyrocket”—it later transpired that Pfizer had sponsored the journalists involved to attend a conference on impotence in Paris.

    At the time, Pfizer said it took journalists to the Paris conference to encourage coverage of erectile dysfunction as a serious medical condition. The journalists noted that Pfizer representatives also made the most of opportunities to argue that Viagra should be put on the Australian government's programme for subsidised drugs.

    Another tactic widely used to promote media coverage of particular health issues has been the establishment of journalism awards. Some have aimed to reward sensitive reporting about topics such as mental health or HIV. Others are more closely aligned with the interests of commercial or professional sponsors.

    Examples from Australia have included the Eli Lilly award for “excellence in journalism in the field of menopause,” which later became a women's health journalism award; an award for promoting public understanding of biotechnology from biotech company Amgen; and a Kellogg's award for nutrition reporting. The National Asthma Council recently decided its award for asthma journalism would no longer be sponsored by a pharmaceutical manufacturer.

    Most recently, the Australian Museum's decision to establish a new category in its prestigious Eureka awards for science and science communication shocked some journalists. Pfizer has provided $10 000 for the new Pfizer Eureka Prize for Health and Medical Research Journalism.

    Pfizer's media affairs manager, Craig Regan, two scientists, and an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) science journalist will judge the award.

    The sponsorship and judging arrangements have raised questions in many quarters about the award's credibility. Robyn Williams, a senior ABC science broadcaster, who helped establish the Eureka awards, has joined leading journalists, academics, and doctors in expressing reservations.

    The museum's response to critics—that Eureka awards have been won previously by journalism critical of award sponsors—does not address the broader issue of whether journalists should accept substantial gifts or sums of money from individuals or organisations they are likely to report on.

    Regan says the prize is part of a strategy to improve Pfizer's relationship with the media, but dismisses as “ridiculous” suggestions that it could influence media coverage of his company.

    Andrew Holtz, president of the Association of Health Care Journalists in the United States, thinks otherwise: “How could a journalist who accepted money from Pfizer then critique the objectivity of medical professionals with financial ties to the company?”

    Dr Stephen Phillips, a general practitioner who chairs The National Prescribing Service, an independent organisation promoting quality use of medicines, says that to be genuinely philanthropic, Pfizer should sponsor an award in an area where it has no vested interest.

    As a journalist who has covered health for more than a decade, I have taken company sponsored trips (to Sweden and Denmark courtesy of Astra Pharmaceuticals and to Berlin with Roche) and entered health journalism awards. But no more. With compelling evidence to show that close ties with industry can influence doctors' behaviour, there's no reason to expect journalists would be any different.

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