Health News Review

Last week we posted Seth Mnookin’s criticism of TIME magazine’s cover story, “How to Cure Cancer.”

We didn’t, at first, comment on Paul Raeburn’s analysis on the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, “TIME magazine wins the war on cancer!

But now Raeburn is back with a new angle, writing that “TIME violates industry advertising guidelines in its story on curing cancer.”

Raeburn points out that:

  • he counted nine mentions of MD Anderson Cancer Center in the TIME cover story.
  • “Time ran a full-page ad for M.D. Anderson in the middle of the story, in direct violation of industry guidelines on ad placement. Is this a story, we are led to wonder, or an advertorial for M.D. Anderson?”

  • “The language in the ad is almost identical to some of the language in the story. “M.D. Anderson continues to pioneer new approaches in cancer treatment,” it says. Helpfully, the ad includes M.D. Anderson’s phone number.”
  • The TIME story mentioned the MD Anderson “Moon Shots” program to cure cancer.
  • “M.D. Anderson used this gimmick to get a day full of coverage by CNN’s Sanjay Gupta, who embarrassingly treated the “moon shots” program as breaking news. “Breaking-cure for cancer close,” he tweeted. In a post on that, I called it possibly the worst cancer-cure hype ever.
  • “And as one conspiracy-minded reader points out, Time Warner owns CNN, and perhaps M.D. Anderson arranged for a package deal with coverage in both Time and CNN. That doesn’t seem likely. Or does it?”
  • “The American Society of Magazine Editors has guidelines that restrict the placement of ads near editorial copy that mentions the institutions or individuals involved. Here is the language from paragraph 5 of the ASME guidelines:

    Editors and publishers should avoid positioning advertisements near editorial pages that discuss or show the same or similar products sold by the advertiser (a rule of thumb used by many magazines is, the reader must turn the page at least twice between related ad and edit).”

When I wrote last week about Seth Mnookin’s critique of the TIME cancer cover story, I contrasted the cancer cover with Steven Brill’s “Bitter Pill” TIME cover story.  I’ll contrast the two again.

Whereas the cancer cover struck Raeburn as an advertorial for MD Anderson, the “Bitter Pill” cover story led with a patient anecdote involving MD Anderson.  Excerpts:

  • “For $469 a month, or about 20% of their income, (a couple) had been able to get only a policy that covered just $2,000 per day of any hospital costs.  “We don’t take that kind of discount insurance,” said the woman at MD Anderson.”
  • “(The patient) was allowed to see the doctor only after he advanced MD Anderson $7500 from his credit card.”
  • Brill cited several MD Anderson billing “markups”:
    • $150 for one acetaminophen tablet.  “You can buy 100 of them on Amazon for $1.49.”
    • $283 for a chest x-ray “for which MD Anderson is routinely paid $20.44 when it treats a patient on Medicare.”
    • Charges for blood and other lab tests “amounted to more than $15,000. Had (he) been old enough for Medicare, MD Anderson would have been paid a few hundred dollars for all those tests.”
    • $13,702 for rituximab injection – “a cancer wonder drug called Rituxan…MD Anderson probably gets a volume discount that would make its cost $3,000 to $3,500.”
    • “The president of MD Anderson is paid like someone running a prosperous business. Ronald DePinho’s total compensation last year was $1,845,000. That does not count outside earnings derived from a much publicized waiver he received from the university that, according to the Houston Chronicle, allows him to maintain unspecified “financial ties with his three principal pharmaceutical companies.”

Disclosure:  I worked for CNN from June of 1983 until January 1991.  I mention that even though that is such ancient history that it seems to have no relevance in this discussion today.  But I disclose it nonetheless.

Addenda on April 5:

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Comments

Greg Pawelski posted on April 4, 2013 at 11:48 am

Gary. You had commented last September about this issue: the false hope media provides to readers and viewers of cancer research. As Paul Raeburn stated, “could be the worst case of hyping cancer cures I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot.” Even Andrew Holtz, who worked in the CNN medical news unit in the 1980s, remarked, “This CNN report is inherently misleading in multiple ways. The story leads viewers to believe something truly novel is happening, but the claim that cancer cases and deaths can be dramatically reduced by applying existing knowledge is a statement that is almost cliche in the cancer world.” I happen to agree with Mr. Holtz, the story about MD Anderson Cancer Center does not make clear what makes this time any different. But as you went on to say, “But resignations, questions about conflicts of interest and fraud probes are not likely to be the kinds of angles and issues one pursues when there are ‘exclusive’ reporting arrangements between a news organization and a medical center.” One of my nieces worked at CNN from 1997 to 2003. I’m beginning to get an understanding of why she left.