Health News Review

In the BMJ this week, Steve Woloshin, Lisa Schwartz and Ray Moynihan raise new questions about “who’s watching the watchdogs?” Excerpts:

“Industry sponsorship of training and further education of journalists now occurs in a variety of contexts—universities, conferences, and professional associations—raising similar concerns to those that apply to education of doctors.

The University of North Carolina’s master’s degree in medical journalism, one of the first in the United States, has at least two important forms of financial relations with drug companies. …

Like some university programmes, the American Medical Writers Association, whose members include reporters and public relations specialists, receives sponsorship from the drug industry. Eli Lilly was a key sponsor of the association’s 2008 annual conference, and the company also sponsors its student scholarships.

One of the more astonishing forms of financial ties between journalists and drug companies is the sponsored award, which often involves lucrative cash prizes or opportunities for international travel. For example, Eli Lilly and Boehringer Ingelheim have co-sponsored an award for “reporting on urinary incontinence,” carrying a prize of international travel. Boehringer has an award for reporting on “chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” offering prizes worth $5000 each, Eli Lilly one for reporting on oncology, and Roche one for “obesity journalism,” with a prize of $7500. Sometimes awards are sponsored by organisations that are themselves heavily funded by industry, such as the non-profit Mental Health America. Its 2007 annual report shows that almost half of its funds came from drug companies, including more than $1m each from Bristol Myers Squibb, Lilly, and Wyeth.

A powerful contemporary example of entanglement involves a television network called Accent Health (whose logo includes the words “Your target is waiting”), said to be watched monthly by more than 10 million viewers in US medical waiting rooms. The network, which is produced by CNN, overtly offers sponsors, including drug companies, the chance to boost sales of their products, by, for example, putting “your brand in front of the valuable Baby Boomer population just before they discuss their health conditions with their doctor.” One of the hosts is Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent and host of at least one other CNN health programme that is funded partly through drug company advertising. …

As researchers and writers acting to improve medical journalism, we encourage journalists, educators, and professional associations to scrutinise their own relations with the industry as intensely as they do those between doctors and drug companies and to develop workable solutions. And, if they are to be good watchdogs, journalists need to mark their territory and clearly establish boundaries between themselves and the industry to avoid unhealthy entanglements.

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