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Conflicts of Interest May Ensnare Journalists, Too

Alex Constantine - November 23, 2008

Also see: "Canadian TV Pro-NutraSweet Advocate Dr. Joe Schwarcz is a Monsanto Shill," and "NPR Radio Host Has Drug Company Ties"

November 22, 2008

Health reporters may become entangled in the same kinds of ethical conflicts they often expose when accepting industry-sponsored awards and relying on corporate public relations offices, three researchers warn.

Journalism awards consisting of cash prizes and all-expense-paid trips given out by drug companies are among the more “astonishing” financial ties between journalists and drug companies, the authors said. The paper appears in the online edition of the British medical journal BMJ.

Among the prizes cited are the Embrace Award for reporting on urinary incontinence — consisting of trips to Washington, D.C., and Paris — offered by pharmaceutical firms Eli Lilly and Boehringer Ingelheim, as well as another Eli Lilly award for cancer treatment stories that includes a weeklong international trip for two.

The authors also point a finger at journalism training and education programs sponsored by the health care industry and to professorships funded by drug company grants. The writers go on to criticize reporters’ reliance on drug company press officers for referrals to experts or to patients, whose views may have been carefully screened.

Pharmaceutical companies “work really hard to get their message out to the public and physicians through advertisements and continuing medical education and all the other things people hear about, so it makes sense they would go after the media as well,” said Dr. Steven Woloshin, associate professor of medicine at The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, one of the paper’s authors. “It’s striking that nobody’s been writing about this.”

Dr. Woloshin said reporters have told him that they often get names of patients from the press officers of drug companies but don’t include that fact in the coverage. “That may be a blind spot for journalists,” he said.

The paper also expressed concern over television programming produced for doctors’ waiting rooms, which may feature journalists but also serve as a platform for drug advertising. “Physicians are legitimately being questioned about their ties to industry and their independence and apparent conflicts of interest, and it’s just as important for the journalists who are doing it,” Dr. Woloshin said.

But Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank and training center, said that while a few freelance writers or magazine writers might vie for industry-sponsored awards, most journalists do not, because the conflicts of interest are obvious.

Len Bruzzese, executive director of the Association for Health Care Journalists, a group that was lauded in the paper for its high ethical standards, said he is concerned about a growing number of online outlets that operate in a “grayer area,” because they do traditional journalism but also provide opportunities for commercial interests to air videos through commercials or more direct sponsorship. For the most part, he said, “journalists are good solid people who will avoid these conflicts, or they wouldn’t have entered journalism to begin with.”


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