Ben Goldacre, in this week’s BMJ writes:
I was surprised last week by an email circular I received from a science writers’ mailing list. It was from the Aspirin Foundation, a group funded by the drug industry, and it was offering—on behalf of Bayer Healthcare—to pay expenses for journalists to attend the European Society of Cardiology’s conference in Vienna.
Now aspirin is without doubt an excellent and cheap drug. But in my naivety I had no idea such things went on. I pinged off a few emails to friends and colleagues. Most poked fun at my innocence—quite rightly—but some were helpful. Not only is it extremely common for journalists to take money from drug companies, but there have been some astonishing cases in recent history, including one memorable case where a PR company invited journalists to “an exclusive preview” of new laser eye technology, with the offer to “discuss free treatment in return for editorial features.”
“I organise the media programmes for a number of medical conferences run by scientific societies,” said one person who, without wishing to be melodramatic, has asked to remain anonymous, “and I reckon at least 50% of the journalists present are paid for by drug companies. They get pretty well looked after too—first class travel, five star hotels, posh dinners, etc. Some of them indulge in double dipping, where they are paid by the day by the drug company and then by the publication that takes whatever they have written. Sometimes they don’t even use the press room, spend all their time in company hospitality suites, and just go to company sponsored satellite sessions and press conferences.”
Perhaps I’m naive, but I don’t buy Ben’s claim that it’s “extremely common for journalists to take money from drug companies.” But the points he makes about pharma’s pervasive and troublesome influence on some journalists and news organizations is worth noting. He wrote:
“…There are real dangers in being too close to PR people: lovely though they may be, their trade is, by definition, manipulation. Drug companies are businesses, with responsibilities to their shareholders, and they wouldn’t pay for journalists to attend their events if they didn’t think it would affect media coverage of their product. After all, a journalist’s article is far more credible than a paid advertisement, for anybody’s money, and more likely to be read by potential consumers. …
It’s much easier to get someone to take your calls when they’ve taken your money. And I, for one, will in future read outraged media reports of academic conflicts of interest with a wry smile indeed.”