Journalism organizations too cozy with drug industry

| 5 Comments

I have written to the National Press Foundation stating my concern with the fact that they have accepted funding from the drug company Pfizer to offer journalism fellowships on cancer issues.

I read about this in an e-newsletter sent by the Society of Professional Journalists. The SPJ newsletter wrote that "Fifteen fellowships will be awarded and they all include lodging, airfare and most meals."

This is the notice as it appeared in the SPJ newsletter:

SPJ NPF ad.png

I wrote to the SPJ president about my concerns, stating that "I don't think SPJ should be encouraging journalists to take these pharma-funded all-expenses-paid trips by promoting them in the newsletter."

All I got was a "Thanks for your note" response.

As an SPJ member, and as the keynote speaker at a recent SPJ ethics week event, I expected more. As a thank you gesture for my participation in that SPJ event, the national president gave me a plaque with the SPJ code of ethics on it. I remind SPJ that its own code of ethics includes these clauses:

Journalists should:


  • Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.


  • Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.


  • Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.

If taking free airfare, lodging and meals from a drug company whose work you cover isn't at least a perceived conflict of interest, I don't know what it is. And I don't think SPJ should promote events in its own newsletter that, in my reading, invites journalists to violate the SPJ code.

More on SPJ in a moment.

I also wrote to the National Press Foundation and had a long e-mail exchange with its president. In a nutshell, he defended their acceptance of the drug company money - just as he did when Merrill Goozner wrote about his concerns with NPF's handling of another drug company-sponsored journalism event last fall. (See "Jeer to the National Press Foundation")

Now back to SPJ.

At its national conference in Indianapolis this August, SPJ will offer a tour of the Eli Lilly drug company corporate headquarters and "a professional development session on the reporting of mental health issues." SPJ invites journalists on its website, with: "you can participate in a networking reception with Lilly leaders to learn more about Lilly's history--and future--from the very individuals who are working to shape it."

Lilly makes:


  • Cymbalta for depression and "generalized anxiety disorder"

  • Prozac

  • and Zyprexa for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder

Why don't journalists see any problem with these arrangements? Actually journalists did see problems with such activities - at one time. The ones who wrote the SPJ code of ethics. Something about "Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment....avoid conflicts real or perceived...etc."

In their article, "Who's Watching the Watchdogs?" in the BMJ on November 19, 2008, Schwartz, Woloshin and Moynihan wrote:

"As watchdogs the media play a vital role in highlighting interconnections between doctors, researchers, and the drug industry. But who watches the watchdogs? Financial ties between medical journalists and for-profit companies they cover in their reporting have received little attention in the media or from the research community. Such ties warrant scrutiny, not least because many of us first learn about new treatments from the news media, and these reports can affect the way the public uses health care."

The authors conclude:


"Training and further education of medical journalists should not be funded by the healthcare industries that the journalists cover."

We urge the National Press Foundation and the Society of Professional Journalists to re-evaluate their policies.

5 Comments

Health journalism is teaming with conflicts of interest. I produce in-depth profiles of leading health care reporters and editors. I can't tell you how many of these journalists choose topics based upon someone in their own family who has an illness or a bone to pick with the health care system.

I also see conflicts in journalists who have family members who are health care professionals who work in the fields that these reporters cover (without disclosure). If you had to write to editors at news organizations trying to point out these conflicts, it would be a full-time job.

I don't believe that it is in the interest of readers/viewers to prevent Pfizer and Lilly from offering these learning opportunities. In a broad sense, they are no different than granting an extended interview to the journalists. Nothing prevents the opposing side from offering similar educational opportunities.

Whether it is a sick parent who motivates a journalist to suddenly write on a rare disease or a reporter who attends an SPJ tour at Lilly, in the end, it is the individual integrity of the journalist that counts most.

Journalists are in a difficult position. When arguing the strengths and weaknesses of traditional professional journalists versus citizen journalists (bloggers for example) the power and access that professional journalists have is often mentioned as a major strength. The problem is, access doesn't come from nowhere. A major part of access to important and powerful figures involves developing a relationship with those in power (whether individuals or corporations). This doesn't, however, translate simplistically into a rejection of the concerns you express. There absolutely appears to be a conflict of interest, and there may be far more than just an appearance. There are some great interviews with top journalists about issues like this that will fundamentally influence the future of journalism at http://www.ourblook.com/component/option,com_sectionex/Itemid,200076/id,8/view,category/#catid69 which I have found useful for discussing topics like these.

This should be a no-brainer for any self-respecting medical reporter. You simply can't accept this kind of fellowship and hope to remain untainted. If the Republican Party was funding an all-expenses paid fellowhip on political reporting, would that be acceptable too? When doctors who work as consultants to drug companies publish research, they have to disclose the conflict of interest up front. Would you like to preface any medical story you do about a disease that might be treated by a Pfizer drug with a disclosure like this: "was wined and dined by Pfizer"? Pay your own way or stay home.

Great post.

www.ReportingonHealth.org, an online resource and community for health journalists, has an excellent essay by noted investigative health journalist Jeanne Lenzer on how journalists can counteract and report on pharma’s influence peddling: http://bit.ly/YjJfy

There are many grey areas in real life practice and it is very difficult to achieve a situation where journalist or professional can be perceived as independant to avoid any conflict of interest. I'm totally with you Gary, journalist shouldn't receive anything that can't threathen this code of conduct!!

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Gary Schwitzer published on June 23, 2009 8:59 AM.

What can a new med school conflict of interest policy uncover? was the previous entry in this blog.

Urologists' call for baseline PSAs in 40 year olds puzzles ACS chief is the next entry in this blog.

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