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:
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:
- 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."
- Cymbalta for depression and "generalized anxiety disorder"
- 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.