Is it ok for journalists to attend Bayer-funded training on new cancer treatments?

NPF logoOnce again the National Press Foundation’s programs are raising conflict of interest questions for journalists. This time the NPF is sponsoring its seventh training session on covering cancer this month in Washington, and in February there will be another training event on obesity held in Phoenix. Both are enticing. The prospect of lots of story ideas, reporting strategies and as the website advertises, “a solid list of sources and resources, including access to audio, slides and some video from speakers” is hard to resist in this age of diminished travel budgets and fast turnarounds for copy. Expense-paid trips, ready-made material, and the ability to get an expert on the phone quickly is a heaven-sent opportunity.

National Press Foundation training programs, however, are hardly pure. These events are often sponsored by corporations that don’t shell out money to fly 15 or 20 journalists to Washington or Phoenix and keep them housed and fed for four or five days for nothing. The funder list, which does include a sprinkling of media organizations and others like AARP, reads mostly like a who’s who of corporate America with Bayer, the Mayo Clinic, and Eli Lilly among the health care companies making the Chairman’s Circle, presumably reserved for large donors. The NPF’s website soliciting new sponsors isn’t shy about what’s in it for them if they cough up the cash.

“Work with us to find the right blend of training and education of journalists to fit your strategy. A literate journalist is a smarter journalist, and that’s a win-win for everyone.”

Educating and training journalists to fit your business strategy? Sounds like a heaven-sent opportunity for sponsors too. Even though the Foundation chooses the speakers, just getting the company name planted favorably in a journalist’s mind is useful. Bayer, the giant drug maker that concentrates on innovative drugs and novel therapies including those for oncology, is sponsoring the cancer sessions. The NPF website advertises that the “latest treatment regimens” will be discussed and presumably that includes the new (and probably expensive, possibly harmful, and maybe ineffective) drugs in the pipeline—some perhaps made by Bayer or will be someday. The Mayo Clinic is the money behind February’s obesity training in Phoenix, where Mayo has a branch operation. It also has expertise in treating obesity like bariatric surgeries and sells related products such as books and DVDs on diabetes diets and weight loss. Perhaps their experts might be quoted someday or a book mentioned in a self-help piece.

Lauren Sausser, a fine health reporter at the Charleston S.C. Post and Courier, who attended an NPF obesity training in May 2013 at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Health and Wellness Center which sponsored the event, told me the conference was “well done.” She still remembers how good some of the talks were and continues to use sources she got from attending. She said no conflicts raised any red flags for her at the time. A year later she had second thoughts and pulled out of the cancer issues program, also sponsored by Bayer, last December. After she was accepted for the event, she gathered the opinions of lots of people, including me, and decided not to go. “I would not accept lunch from a local hospital so why would I accept a hotel and airfare from a drug company.” She said she didn’t notice Bayer’s funding until she was accepted. “I said thanks but no thanks. I was uncomfortable accepting the free trip.” She said the Foundation had told her that “while Bayer is funding all costs for the program, they have no input into content and do not have any say in who we choose as speakers.” But sometimes, Sausser told me, “The conflicts are hidden and sometimes they are just not clear.”

That was the case with one of the speakers at the obesity training Sausser attended—James O. Hill, executive director of the Anschutz Center. In August  the New York Times reported that Hill also headed the front group, Global Energy Balance Network, funded with a $1.5 million donation from Coca-Cola to start the organization. In late November the AP broke a story showing through emails it had obtained that Coca-Cola helped pick the group’s leaders, edited its mission statement, and suggested articles and videos for its website. In one email, the AP said, Hill told a top Coke executive: “I want to help your company avoid the image of being a problem in peoples’ lives and back to being a company that brings important and fun things to them.” According to the AP, Coke gave Hill $550,000 since 2010 mostly for research and travel expenses and fees for speaking engagements. Sausser says none of his industry ties were disclosed to participants attending the program although she said, “it became clear over the course of the conference that he had industry ties. He made a point of saying they deserve a seat at the table to figure out how to solve the obesity problem.” Included in the pre-conference reading material, however, was this post from about conflicts of interest and obesity.

I asked Sandy Johnson, president and chief operating officer at NPF, whether NPF had any expectations or requirements for coverage of conference-related topics from attendees. She responded in an email:

We do not have publishing quotas for the journalists who participate in our programs. We simply offer journalists the opportunity to learn from experts on a given topic – they can spend the four days filling their notebook with notes and story ideas, or they can file spot stories from the training. Some blog and tweet. Most publish later, and sprinkle their stories with what they learned from the NPF training. We do follow their published work through a service called Meltwater, and happily tweet their published work.

It’s fair to ask what kinds of stories reporters write after they attend these programs. Obviously I can’t judge the entire output or even a fraction of it, but three health-related stories I found on the NPF site were hardly earth-shattering. One from a writer from the Mail & Guardian in South Africa who participated in the Lung Health trainings last year told the story of how TB often goes undetected especially if it’s lodged outside the lungs. One from a Harvest Public Media writer who was at this year’s “Food From Farm to Table” meeting told of the agricultural industry’s trouble getting graduates to fill some 60,000 jobs that will be available. A piece from a Boston Globe writer who attended the Precision Medicine trainings read like an ode to the drug industry, “While Big Pharma gets bigger, local biotechs innovate.” Nothing too critical here.

Would one expect critical, penetrating journalism resulting from such trainings? Maybe yes; maybe no. But when journalists attend events such as the NPF’s on the sponsor’s dime, they are taking a gift, plain and simple. As innocent as that may appear, a gift implies reciprocity. How does the receiver repay? Favorable treatment for the giver; a reluctance to ask tough questions; directly or indirectly promoting their points of view; or a nod to their products and services when it’s appropriate for a story? And that, it seems, is the real danger lurking in those NPF programs designed to help corporations train journalists to fit their business strategies.

Trudy Lieberman is a veteran health care reporter and contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review. She writes regularly for the blog. 

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Comments (4)

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Kenny Goldberg

December 14, 2015 at 11:10 am

I’ve attended a number of NPF programs, and I never felt compelled to report favorably on one of their funders. In fact, I didn’t know who their sponsors were most of the time.
I attended one cancer fellowship, where on the first evening, the NPF director introduced someone from the drug company that was the chief underwriter. The director said, “Get a good look at this guy, because it’s the last time you’re going to see him.” And indeed, we never saw anyone from the company the entire week.
No one, in any of the sessions, told or even suggested to journalists how they should cover a story. The suggestions that journalists would be likely to reciprocate by altering their coverage in any way is off base.

    Trudy Lieberman

    December 14, 2015 at 3:28 pm

    Funders don’t give money for nothing. There may not be an explicit expectation of favorable coverage, but a more subtle one, and that’s the danger of reporters accepting meals, airfare, and hotels to attend such events. As Sausser noted in my piece, she would not take a lunch from local hospital, so why would she fly somewhere on another potential source’s dime. It seems there is a conflict here. There’s almost always a way to get information without attending these kinds of events. And that in my book is the over-arching journalistic principle we should keep in mind.

Andrew Holtz

December 14, 2015 at 3:14 pm

I am confident that Kenny Goldberg would rebel against any obvious attempt to skew his coverage. The influence of NPF sponsors is not obvious, but I cannot believe that the really smart people at companies and institutions who decide to shell out ten of thousands of dollars to sponsor NPF programs would be doing it if they didn’t think it advanced their interests. See my earlier blog post, “Sponsored journalist training on “precision medicine”: Zeroing in on a conflict of interest”, 3/23/2015.
Ham-handed attempts to manipulate reporters will backfire, but sponsoring workshops on topics that dovetail with corporate marketing and institutional strategic plans (while failing to support journalist training on topics where there is no corporate interest) quietly places a thumb on the scale and subtly skews coverage. When it’s done effectively, journalists don’t even realize how their news judgment has been altered.

Gary Schwitzer

December 14, 2015 at 3:54 pm

I agree with Trudy and Andrew. I taught media ethics at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication for 9 years. Journalists are cautioned to avoid even the perception of a conflict of interest, and to consider the point that Trudy raised: in the face of a conflict – real or perceived – have you exhausted other means of getting the information? Over and over, we and other critics have raised concerns about the perceived problems surrounding the National Press Foundation promoting all-expenses-paid trips for journalists that are paid for by drug companies or others in the health care industry. The perception – the odor – isn’t going away. It just grows stronger.