Here we go again with Pfizer-funded cancer seminar for journalists

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I knew about it. But I wasn’t going to write about it because I did last year and my criticism apparently went nowhere.

But then a former journalism student, Emma Carew, now at the Star Tribune, tweeted me this morning about the latest round of Pfizer-funded cancer seminars at the National Press Foundation in Washington, D.C.:

@garyschwitzer your thoughts? JOURNOS: Attend a 4-day seminar on cancer issues in DC. All expenses paid. about 5 hours ago (from @emmacarew)

My quick responses as soon as I could respond:

Wouldn’t want on my c-v! I criticized these Pfizer-pfunded seminars to NPF & SPJ which helped promote it last year. Deaf ears. about 3 hours ago

The link goes to a blog post I wrote one year ago when the National Press Foundation was promoting its Pfizer-pfunded cancer seminar last summer.

Maybe it’s a good thing this issue did get dusted off again. It’s clear that others are upset about it, because the online Twitter conversation continued:

@garyschwitzer part of the multi level marketing campaign – it’s not enough 2 use direct 2 consumer/doctor advertising – need the press also about 3 hours ago via web (from @WriteWithStan)

Just a (choke) whiff of conflict-of-interest RT @garyschwitzer: @emmacarew All expenses paid (by Pfizer) cancer seminar. about 3 hours ago via HootSuite (from @MedicalBillDog)

Journalism organizations too cozy with drug industry… Gary Schwitzer’s HealthNewsReview #UMN about 3 hours ago via bitly (from @wbgleason)

RT @wbgleason: Journalism organizations too cozy with drug industry… Gary Schwitzer’s HealthNewsReview #UMN about 3 hours ago via HootSuite (from Michael Caputo, Minnesota Public Radio)

I wish more journalists like Caputo would report on this. Journalists have been terribly quiet. I know at least one news organization plans to report on this soon because I’ve been asked for a reaction by a reporter via email this afternoon.

This one shouldn’t be swept under the rug because it’s questioning a “news foundation.”

Addendum on August 24: For more, read Christopher Weaver’s piece on the NPR Shots health blog.

And my followup to what was said in that piece, even if National Press Foundation staff choose the speakers and set the agenda, even if the Pfizer “guy never even showed up” last year, even if one reporter doesn’t recall Pfizer even being mentioned once at last year’s session, one fact remains. Some journalists will have taken Pfizer money to attend this session. Journalists are taught to avoid even the perception of conflict. Or are they taught that anymore?

Addendum on August 25: Other key perspectives just posted by Merrill Goozner on his blog.

Addendum on August 27:

Just today, the National Press Foundation invited me to speak at this year’s Pfizer-funded session. From NPF: “You may speak on any topic you like related to journalism or cancer coverage, including matters relating to the current online discussion of this program.”

That was a gracious, proactive and open-minded move by NPF and I thank them for it and applaud them for it.

Unfortunately I cannot attend because of a longstanding prior commitment. I have communicated this to NPF and also stated my desire to meet with them to discuss these issues in the future.

The debate on this issue has been healthy, although, at times a bit acrid. I regret if any of my comments contributed to that tone or were interpreted in the wrong way. My passion runs deep on this issue, as I know it does in those who have voiced differing opinions.

I’ve devoted my entire career to the improvement of health journalism. I wrote the Statement of Principles of the Association of Health Care Journalists and just wrote an AHCJ guide on how to report on research. I’m traveling >70K miles/yr. – all devoted to health journalism improvement.

I look forward to exchanging ideas with NPF.


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e-Patient Dave

August 23, 2010 at 7:36 pm

In the absence of any smoking guns, I wonder a couple of things …
1. Do these seminars contain content that violates the ten principles?
2. Why can’t the content be delivered in web tutorials?
It’s the latter that concerns me. There’s profuse evidence that doctors prescribe more based on who’s greased their lunch budget etc; has anyone studied the same with journos?
If that evidence exists, some professional association ought to ban the practice in a code of ethics, right alongside bribery.


August 24, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Someone has to sponser. If its about pushing their own product then no. But if the program will cover many aspects of treatment ,even other companies drugs etc. Then yeah go!

Gary Schwitzer

August 24, 2010 at 12:16 pm

Thanks for your note.
But does the sponsor need to be a company that makes products in the field being discussed?
Has NPF sought out funding, collaborations or partnerships with the Association of Health Care Journalists, the National Cancer Institute, the folks who run the National Institutes of Health Medicine in the Media workshops, the Knight Foundation? And I could list many more.
Gary Schwitzer

Emma Carew

August 24, 2010 at 3:28 pm

I remember my first UNITY conference in 2008 (whilst still a student of Gary’s) and I showed up for the “training” on covering health care and people of color.
Imagine my shock when I was promptly handed a small armload of Eli Lilly Corp. promo swag. They had sponsored the panel!
Was it decent content? Yes. But was I comfortable taking it at face value? Guess again.

Virginia O'Possum

August 24, 2010 at 4:03 pm

e-Patient Dave,
There’s an old joke about journalists that goes: There’s nothing you can bribe them with. . . except a free sandwich.

Andrew Holtz

August 24, 2010 at 5:29 pm

Even if there is nothing about the program that specifically promotes Pfizer or its products, this workshop highlighting medical research and cancer treatments will influence the coverage of the attendees. So what? Well, attention to ‘cutting edge’ cancer treatments is something that matches the broad interests of Pfizer.
Where’s the all-expenses-paid workshop on how neighborhood characteristics (food availability, sidewalks vs. highways, economic disparities) influence health and disease rates? A pharmaceutical company isn’t likely to invest in topics that highlight social, economic and political forces that influence health. After all, they are in the business of selling cures.
Compared to other businesses, news organizations have among the lowest rates of investment in training and development of their employees. Journalists are left to scrounge for handouts in order to learn about the topics they are supposed to cover. A heavy-handed approach would backfire, but by setting the training agenda of journalists, industry can influence the eventual news coverage agenda, and thus ultimately influence the public policy agenda.

Andrew Holtz

August 25, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Bob Meyers defends the NPF workshop on cancer by saying that the corporate sponsor, Pfizer, has no involvement in the details of the program. I have no reason to doubt him.
If there is a sin here, it is a sin not of commission, but omission.
Pfizer does not need to meddle in the minutiae because the attention and stories about cancer research and treatment that the workshop will generate will further Pfizer’s broad interests.
Of course cancer is a topic that journalists need to learn about. But there are many other aspects of health they also need to learn about. A quick look at NPF seminars indicates the “health” programs are in fact “disease” programs. That’s not surprising; almost all of our investment in health goes to disease treatment. Public health, health promotion and other public policies affecting the health of individuals and communities are left to fight for scraps of funding.
If the NPF proposed a seminar on how land use, transportation and other aspects of the built environment affect health, would Pfizer sponsor it? I’d be surprised; after all, the topic doesn’t overlap with their product line.
If the availability of corporate sponsorship determines which programs are offered (and which are shelved), then their money and their interests do in fact affect content.

Claudia Perry

August 26, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Considering that there are other funding sources available, I would have avoided having a pharmaceutical company funding a seminar for journalists. I think such sponsorship would definitely affect the selection of topics and how they topics are presented. It doesn’t matter that the Pfizer guy wasn’t there. If he was there when the program was developed, that’s more of problem.