US blog questions drug company funding of continuing education for journalistsBMJ 2010; 341 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c4857 (Published 03 September 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c4857
A US blog has questioned whether journalists might be influenced by accepting “all expenses paid” fellowships to attend an educational conference on cancer organised by the US National Press Foundation but sponsored by Pfizer.
Pfizer is providing unrestricted funding of $80 000 (£52 000; €62 000) to the US National Press Foundation, a non-profit charitable organisation that provides continuing educational programmes for journalists, to sponsor 15 US journalists to attend the foundation’s four day educational programme on cancer being held in Washington, DC, from 17 to 20 October (http://nationalpress.org/programs-and-resources/program/cancer-issues-2010/).
In his recent Pharmalot blog Ed Silverman, a journalist, asked whether journalists might be influenced by a drug company sponsored but apparently independent educational programme in the way that doctors might be (www.pharmalot.com). “The arrangement is generating a bit of heat in some circles, given sensitivities over perceptions of conflicts of interest,” he said.
Gary Schwitzer, a former professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota, who publishes www.healthnewsreview.org, said he saw the issue in the context of erosion of public confidence in journalists. As for sponsored seminars he said, “Who is paying the bill? This is swept under the carpet.” He recommended that journalists indicate in stories they write that they had attended an all expenses paid seminar sponsored by a drug company.
Charles Ornstein, president of the US Association of Health Care Journalists (www.healthjournalism.org), said that to avoid sponsored programmes journalists could learn from each other through networking and by attending seminars organised by non-profit institutions or universities, such as the US National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
He said that healthcare journalists have covered issues of conflict of interest between doctors and drug companies for years and “may have been on the alert when the issue touched them.” He added that the association does not accept funding from commercial organisations with a financial interest in health care.
The association’s rule is stricter than that of the US Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education (www.accme.org), which approves continuing medical education for doctors. The council would allow a drug company to fund continuing medical education through an independent organisation if the drug company did not influence the choice of topic or speakers.
Linda Topping Streitfield, director of programmes at the National Press Foundation, said that Pfizer had no role in organising the programme for the cancer meeting, in selecting the topics or speakers, or in selecting the journalists who attend, in line with the foundation’s rules. “We’re proud of the programme and gratified at the reaction of journalists who have attended previous programmes,” she said.
The foundation receives funding from corporate donors, among them major drug companies. Ms Streitfield explained that the same rules applied to all its sponsored programmes: the sponsors are identified and may address journalists at the beginning of the programme, but the foundation controls all aspects of every programme, which will be balanced, fair, and on the record. Journalists invited to participate are selected by the foundation, she said.
Raymond Kerins, vice president for external affairs and communications for Pfizer, told the BMJ that the company wanted to “engage and educate” journalists so they understood the issues. “We want to be part of the solution,” he said. He acknowledged that Pfizer had a major interest in cancer drugs but insisted that the National Press Foundation received an unrestricted educational grant and that Pfizer had “zero impact” on the agenda, focus, choice of speakers, or selection of journalists.
He noted that as newspapers and magazines cut staff, general reporters may cover health and medical news previously covered by specialist reporters, while science reporting is becoming increasingly complex.
Jenny Song, a journalist who participated in a previous conference on cancer organised by the National Press Foundation when working as an editor for a cancer research magazine and who is now with the Waxman Cancer Organization, said, “Never was there any effort to bias me about Pfizer or its products. I never saw any brochures from Pfizer or received anything from them before or after the seminar. No one from Pfizer ever contacted me before or after the seminar either . . . The NPF [National Press Foundation] president, Bob Meyers, spoke openly and frankly with us about Pfizer sponsoring [that] programme.”
Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c4857