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Pfizer – a Pfriend of Journalists?

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Last week journalists got an email from the National Press Foundation (NPF) inviting them to apply for another all-expenses-paid program for which drug company Pfizer is contributing some of the funding. The topic this time is Alzheimer’s Disease – another field in which Pfizer makes products.

Readers of this blog know that I have led the criticism for two straight years of the NPF offering all-expenses-paid-by-Pfizer trips to journalists for cancer workshops. Read this from June 2009 and and this this from August 2010 as examples.)

I want to acknowledge that I’ve been contacted by both Linda Streitfeld of NPF and Ray Kerins, Pfizer’s VP for External Affairs and Communications, about my stated concerns. Ms. Streitfeld has invited me to speak at either the cancer or Alzheimer’s programs to address my concerns, but I have longstanding prior travel commitments at both times. I have begun to discuss meeting with NPF in Washington sometime early in 2011.

Meantime, at least some journalists continue to have concerns about the NPF offering these Pfizer-funded “fellowships.” Today I publish below a guest blog post from freelance journalist Andrew Holtz, a member of the board of directors of the Association of Health Care Journalists, and a former co-worker of mine at CNN.

Guest blog post by Andrew Holtz:

Journalists need training to cover complex health and medical stories. They generally don’t get it from their employers. So three cheers for Pfizer stepping in to lend a hand to reporters who are yearning to learn, right? Actually, I’m creeped out by a pharmaceutical company being involved in setting the training agenda for journalists.

Here are the specifics. In mid-October, the National Press Foundation (NPF) is putting on a program about cancer for journalists. The program, including travel subsidies for journalists, is supported by Pfizer. Then in December there will be an NPF program on Alzheimer’s disease, again sponsored by Pfizer.

Following a brouhaha about the cancer program funding, NPF President Bob Meyers said it’s just like advertising in a newspaper or TV news program. “?Nobody touches the content of our program, nobody dictates content or journalist selection,” Meyers wrote in a blog post.

I have no reason to doubt Meyers’ assertion that Pfizer doesn’t meddle in the program details. Nevertheless, there are important differences between advertising and the NPF model. According to the NPF web site, the organization outlines proposed programs and in cases that apparently include the cancer and Alzheimer’s programs, applies for funding support. It seems then that topic ideas agreeable to funders are more likely to move ahead.

Allow me to muse about what a newsroom editorial meeting might look like if it followed a similar model.

The editor sits at the head of the conference room table. She looks around at her reporters. “Well, what have you got for the upcoming health reports calendar?”

“There’s an experimental cancer drug being tested at the med school,” pipes up one reporter. “I talked to one of the researchers and she said they could get permission for us to meet one of the patients.”

“There’s a local clinic that’s opening a comprehensive heart care unit,” offers another reporter. “Doctors, exercise specialists, nutritionists. They’ve got it all under one roof.”

A third reporter chimes in. “There are some local activists planning to hold a neighborhood meeting and then take a proposal to the city council. It’s about all the fast food joints in their area. They want some zoning changes and urban development support to cut down on the junk food and attract a grocery store with a good fresh produce section and maybe a farmer’s market.”

“Hey, those all sound like great leads. Important issues,” the editor says. “Let me just cross-check those ideas with our sponsor categories. OK, now… cancer. Yup, that fits. Heart disease… that’s a good topic. Fast food. Zoning. Farmer’s markets.” The editor looks up and down the sponsor list. “It’s an important story. Obesity epidemic, prevention, social equity and all that.” She continues to search. “Sorry, but I’m just not seeing anyone who wants to support that topic. Maybe another time, if we can find the right sponsor.”

“Oh, before I let you go… doesn’t anyone have anything on Restless Leg Syndrome or old guys who gotta pee all the time? I’ve got people begging for stories like that. They won’t meddle in the coverage. They just want to raise awareness.”

It is worth noting that the pharmaceutical industry is cutting back on grants to Continuing Medical Education (CME) courses in the wake of growing warnings about insidious effects of “unrestricted” CME grants. Is it just a coincidence that as those grants are curtailed, Pfizer appears to be increasing “educational” support for journalists?

Just as the NPF spread the word about the Pfizer-sponsored Alzheimer’s disease program for journalists, drug market analysts were predicting that new drugs, including a Pfizer product, might triple the size of that market. Another coincidence?

Communications researchers have long highlighted the agenda-setting role of the news media. We shouldn’t abdicate that responsibility by allowing parties with a financial interest to hold sway over the training agenda of those who determine what’s news.

 

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gzuckier

October 1, 2010 at 10:27 pm

Well, if the drug companies are so concerned over keeping journalists informed and it’s not a blantant marketing pitch, then they certainly wouldn’t be averse to sponsoring these junkets anonymously. The same applies, of course, to their various boondoggles pitched at doctors and other prescribing personnel.