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Pharma-sponsored health journalism at Australia’s national newspaper

The Australian is a Rupert Murdoch newspaper – Australia’s only national newspaper. It has been running articles and video clips about health policy in a series called “Health of the Nation”, sponsored by an Australian drug industry group. The series culminated in a glossy, 24-page magazine that included feature articles, and advertorials and advertisements for the drug industry.

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Journalist Melissa Sweet has published concerns about the arrangement in the BMJ (full text available only to subscribers).

In it, she writes that the Australian drug industry group…

…”said that the arrangement rose out of meetings between its advertising agency and (the news organization’s) promotions and advertising teams, ‘which recognised common interests.’

(The drug industry group), which also sponsors health journalism awards run by the National Press Club of Australia, would not reveal the value of the deal with the Australian, saying that it was ‘commercial in confidence.’ “

On her blog, Sweet also published more detailed concerns raised by a number of observers, including what I wrote to her in an email in response to her request for comment:

“The Association of Health Care Journalists Statement of Principles includes a clause that states that journalists must “Preserve a dispassionate relationship with sources, avoiding conflicts of interest, real or perceived.”

Another clause states “Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage. “

Is this a dispassionate relationship? I don’t think so. It’s courting financial deals with the subjects of news stories. That’s pretty passionate.

In expectation of all of the claims by both parties that the relationship is “clean” and that the conflict is not real, it doesn’t make much for one to perceive a conflict.

And therein you’ve introduced a doubt in the public’s mind about the integrity of editorial decision-making – if not now on this project, then in the future. If the paper doesn’t aggressively report on future drug industry issues, how will the public know what to think of it? The seed of doubt will have been planted. Journalism can’t afford that.

Is this favored treatment? You bet it is – if you believe, as I do, that the job of journalism is to “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” How do those without deep pockets gain access to the pages of the paper in like manner? If they don’t, then this is favored treatment – isn’t this simply checkbook journalism? News for hire?

Since when do journalists partner with/collaborate with/have commercial agreements with (you name the correct term for this alliance) the drug industry they must cover?

I’m sure that the newspaper will say that they retain complete editorial control over the content. I’ve heard that before from American news organizations that take money in similar ethically challenged deals. But think about this: even by entering into this arrangement, the newspaper has agreed to publish content that they otherwise would not have published. No matter what that content is, the money on the table has influenced editorial decision-making. If not, why didn’t the newspaper publish the material without being paid to do so?

No matter how you spin it, this is the drug industry influencing public discussions in one more infectious way.

Journalists should be sniffing out and exposing such deals – not being party to them.”

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Comments

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Dr Janice Duffy

October 29, 2011 at 8:39 am

Why am I not surprised about the report of these arrangements? Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely!