The corruption of health journalism awards

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Australian journalism Melissa Sweet, in a piece entitled, “The ties that bind: how big pharma buys a good press,” in the Australian online magazine Crikey (subscription required but free trial available), writes:

“The media is often quick to get on its high horse about the pharmaceutical industry’s wining and dining of doctors, but is much less upfront about the lucre that journalists accept from drug companies and other health organisations.

These take the form of journalism prizes — the booty for the Pfizer Eureka Prize for Health and Medical Research is a hefty $10,000 — and sponsored trips to attend conferences or other such events.

Organisations as august as the National Press Club take sponsorship for health journalism awards from groups with clear vested interests, such as the pharmaceutical industry lobby group, Medicines Australia, and the drug company, Pfizer Australia.

Indeed, so many vested interests are involved in medical journalism awards that it’s verging on the ridiculous. Roche funds an international award for obesity journalism, and is also one of the companies behind an international osteoporosis journalism award. My personal favourite is the Embrace Award, jointly sponsored by Eli Lilly and Boehringer Ingelheim, for “accurate, responsible and sensitive reporting on urinary incontinence”.

Other awards are funded by professional or advocacy groups eager to promote themselves or their issues. The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy has an award “to recognise outstanding medical and health reporting on allergic and immune diseases in Australia and New Zealand”. The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists gets up to 30 entries each year for its awards – two of $3,000 each – for journalism promoting “understanding of eye care issues specifically related to the work of Australian and/or New Zealand ophthalmologists”.

Organisations such as the National Press Club stress the independence of their awards and the judging process, and just about everyone involved in such awards emphasises that their aim is to support and encourage good journalism. That may be the case but of course there are also other agendas, whether generating positive corporate PR, building relationships with key journalists and organisations, or promoting particular issues/products. The Embrace Award at least is upfront about this, saying it aims to “empower women to seek help” – presumably from one of the sponsors’ products.”

The Statement of Principles of the Association of Health Care Journalists includes a clause: “…weigh the potential benefits of accepting awards from organizations sponsored by an entity with a vested interest in health care against our need for credibility.”

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