Podcast #32: Newly-revised List of Industry-Independent Experts for Journalists

Gary Schwitzer is founder and publisher of HealthNewsReview.org.  He has worked to help maintain the list in question since 2008 and has sent it to countless journalists.  He tweets as @garyschwitzer, or, using our project handle, @HealthNewsRevu.

If anyone ever says that he or she can’t find an industry-independent expert for a news story or for an FDA committee, they just haven’t looked hard enough.

For 9 years, we have hosted what is, to the best of our knowledge, a one-of-a-kind list of health care industry-independent experts.

Now that list has been revised, with new names, removing even more excuses for those who, in the past, published news stories with only conflicted sources or filled committees with only industry-funded members.

The credit for building this list goes to investigative journalist and associate editor for The BMJ, Jeanne Lenzer, and Shannon Brownlee, senior VP of the Lown Institute, who first started the list in 2007.  Back then, they wrote about it on Slate and in The BMJ.  I’ve helped review applicants, review journalists’ requests, and manage the list, along with Adriane Fugh-Berman, MD, of Georgetown University Medical Center and the PharmedOut.org project.

In this audio podcast. you can hear Lenzer and Brownlee talk about the history of the list, what first inspired them to start it, what they have tried to do with it, and why the list is also important for the general public, news consumers, health care consumers and patients.

As we mentioned in the podcast. about half of the 2,400 stories we’ve reviewed so far have received unsatisfactory grades for failing to turn to an independent source and/or for failing to explore conflicts of interest in the sources interviewed.  A couple of recent examples:

  • Newsweek speculated about an “obesity cure” but didn’t disclose that the researcher quoted throughout the article is listed as inventor on a patent application for an antibody behind the alleged cure.  That means the researcher would get royalties and/or licensing feels if the product is ever commercialized.
  • The Associated Press had some independent sources in a story about a drug for a type of macular degeneration.  But the story didn’t disclose that one researcher quoted several times in the story had served as consultant and speaker for Genentech, maker of the drug in question.
  • CBS News only cited one expert in a story about Botox tested for depression, and that one holds an approved patent for the treatment in question, stands to gain financially if the treatment receives FDA approval, and has been a paid consultant for the company manufacturing the drug. Our reviewers wrote, “Not telling readers about these major conflicts of interest is irresponsible.”

Our list of independent experts can help any journalist overcome these problems. A number of people on the list are part-time editorial contributors to HealthNewsReview.org. There are also current and former editors of medical journals, including the Public Library of Science-Medicine, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, and the New England Journal of Medicine. Some list members are former FDA advisors, current and past deans and vice-deans of medical schools.

I know that, in my own management of the list through the years, I’ve responded to requests for access to it from journalists with public radio, magazines, newspapers, TV networks, and websites.  Once I started keeping track of where requests came from, I know we heard from journalists in Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Washington, DC, and Wisconsin (and this is undoubtedly an incomplete list).  Journalists from Canada and from at least 5 European countries have asked for, and received, access.

We who have worked on the list believe that journalism would be better, and the public would be better informed, if more reporters turned to this list more often. The chances would then be improved that news stories would present a more balanced view of the tradeoffs between potential benefits and harms of interventions, and delivered more evidence than vested interest opinion.

Additional reading and resources:

This is our 32nd podcast.  You can find all of our podcasts HERE.

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Comments (4)

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Louise B Andrew

July 17, 2017 at 4:39 pm

In the interest of transparency, I am I believe on the list being promoted in the article.
I appreciate this story, because I think it describes a problem that is becoming epidemic in media, which is “get the scoop on X before someone else does, even if it later turns out to be fake news”. Health reporters and watchdogs are not going to solve this broader problem, but at least you have laid out the basic premises in a very important arena for readers to know, or at least begin to know how to ferret out the truth. Reading some of the linked articles gives a step by step approach for both writers and discerning readers. Thank you.

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Boyce Rensberger

July 18, 2017 at 9:00 am

Excellent podcast, and thanks to all three of you. Including my friend, Jeanne Lenzer. Are you looking for ways to make this topic more widely known–among journalists as well as the public? Is, for example, the Knight Science Journalism fellowship program paying enough attention to this?

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    Gary Schwitzer

    July 18, 2017 at 11:22 am

    Boyce,

    Thanks for your continued interest and kind words.

    Yes, we are looking for more ways to bring this topic – and our list of industry-independent experts – to the attention of more journalists and the general public. Jeanne has a few things in the works, about which you may hear more soon. But we are open to ideas.

    I don’t know if the Knight Science Journalism fellowship program is paying attention to this. Perhaps you could help spread the word to them and others.

    Regards,

    Gary Schwitzer
    Publisher

    Reply

Al Lewis

July 18, 2017 at 6:10 pm

Thank you for this. I was not previously aware of Jeanne Lenzer (perhaps I need to get out more), but Shannon Brownlee is the most credible journalist in this field I know of (along with Sharon Begley). If a wellness vendor tells me the sky is blue and she says the sky is green, I at least go look out the window.

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