Gary Schwitzer is the founder and publisher of HealthNewsReview.org. He authored the Statement of Principles for the Association of Health Care Journalists in 2004. He tweets as @garyschwitzer or as @HealthNewsRevu.
How about four days in warm, sunny West Palm Beach, Florida?
But how troubling. Once again.
An email was sent to journalists this week announcing this junket funded by Bayer, a multinational drug company. Bayer markets a number of cardiovascular drugs – and cardiovascular disease is the topic of this Florida fellowship.
HealthNewsReview.org has been the only publication to consistently criticize this practice. We have written many times* in the past decade about the ethical problems with, and conflicts of interest inherent in, continued National Press Foundation (NPF) fellowships or training offering such junkets using industry funding.
NPF has always said that the criticism is off-base because NPF is “solely responsible for programming and content.” Even if NPF chose the topic, it’s a topic that is conveniently comfortable for a drug company sponsor with cardiovascular drugs in its product line. Even if journalists who’ve attended these events in the past say that they didn’t see a conflict and didn’t perceive any sponsor influence, the fact is that many journalists will have accepted industry money to attend.
Two items stand out on the NPF website in the section on sponsorship:
The sponsor(s) will be invited to address the journalists at the start of the program, welcoming them and explaining why they chose to sponsor this program. …
At the conclusion of the program the sponsor(s) will receive a written evaluation of the program, including ratings and comments from each of the attending journalists.
So the sponsor clearly gets something out of its investment – insight into what is on journalists’ minds.
It’s noteworthy that some of the best health care journalism at this time is reporting that discloses and criticizes physicians’ acceptance of industry money. The NPF fellowships, on the other hand, lure journalists to attend events that are funded by industry. It appears that when the shoe is on the other foot, the ethical concerns seem to disappear for some. The disconnect could not be more clear.
For reaction, I turned to a couple of colleagues with whom I help maintain a List of Industry-Independent Experts for journalists to use to avoid reliance on conflicted sources.
Shannon Brownlee is senior vice president of the Lown Institute. But she also had a distinguished career as a senior writer at US News and World Report and Discover Magazine, and was named one of “four writers who changed the world” by the World Congress of Science Journalists.. She wrote to me:
Journalists will complain that the only way they can afford to go to such a workshop is if somebody underwrites it. There’s a simple solution: don’t go. It’s not worth your time and there is no way that the industry is doing this without some expectation of a quid pro quo. You might even call it bribery. Either that or it’s an attempt to improve the company’s image. Journalists will also claim that they make up their own minds, and who sponsored the event doesn’t have an effect on their reporting. Tell me another fairy tale.
And who supports the NPF? Out of 34 industry sponsors, health care companies account for seven. So please don’t try to argue that this is a “pure” journalism event, because the NPF is never going to bite the hands that feed it.
Jeanne Lenzer is an independent medical investigative journalist and author and a longtime contributor to The BMJ. She wrote to me:
Industry only donates money when it can expect a financial return on investment – it’s called “strategic giving”. For more on that see: The Human Toll of the Medical Industry’s Uncharitable Giving. The calculus industry conducts on their “investments” is fine-tuned to before-and-after-investment sales and is abandoned if returns aren’t realized. The practice of journalists accepting industry funding directly or via their organizations should be eschewed. For more on Bayer and its manipulation of public opinion via “journalists” read today’s Guardian article: Revealed: Bayer AG discussed plans to give not-for-profit funding for influence.
Readers are encouraged to read that full Guardian article for its timeliness and relevance to this discussion. It is connected to the topic of this post – attempts by industry to gain influence on journalism on topics relevant to the sponsor’s goals. There is also a very relevant discussion of the role of journalism associations or foundations in such arrangements.
Over time several respected health care journalists have written or spoken about their concerns over NPF accepting industry funding – including Brownlee, Lenzer, Andrew Holtz, Trudy Lieberman, Ray Moynihan, Merrill Goozner, Duff Wilson, and Lauren Sausser.
Excerpts of this statement of professional responsibilities are relevant to this discussion. Excerpts:
We should strive to be independent from the agendas and timetables of journals, advocates, industry and government agencies.
We must preserve a dispassionate relationship with sources, avoiding conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
Refuse gifts, favors and special treatment.
Weigh the potential benefits involved in accepting fees, honoraria, free travel, paid expenses from organizers of conferences or events against the desire to preserve our credibility with the audience and the need to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
I have sought other reactions to the latest NPF fellowship offer and may add other perspectives as I collect them.**
Another conflicted journalism training event by the National Press Foundation (Coca-Cola funding)
** Additional perspectives arriving via email after this piece was first published:
Christopher Labos, MD, cardiologist, Office for Science & Society, McGill University, and one of our editorial reviewers in the past:
I think we have to be mindful of conflict of interest. The public is becoming less and less tolerant of people having ties to industry. It’s hard because funding is increasingly scarce and it’s very hard to organize educational activities without some sort of external funding source. When that external source of funding causes a conflict of interest, I think the bad outweighs the good in that circumstance. We all think we can’t be influenced, that we can be independent minded. But the truth is we can all be influenced, even if just in subtle ways, so conflict of interest is something we have to be hypervigilant about.
Paul Raeburn is a veteran science journalist, including 15 years as the science editor and chief science correspondent at the Associated Press. He wrote:
Gary and I both criticized these kinds of sponsored junkets when I was a media critic at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker. And Gary has stayed with this story, with the hope that bringing this practice to light might dissuade some journalists from going. (Here is a piece I wrote for the Tracker.)
It’s hard to know whether my occasional piece and Gary’s steady drumbeat of stories have made a difference. I never got an email from a journalist saying he or she decided not to go after reading something by me or more likely Gary.
Still, even in the Trump world, where fact, fiction, and deception are tossed together like a salad, we must try to point out areas where journalism fails—and this is one of those areas.
If you agree, spread the word.
Addendum on December 6, just before the deadline for journalists to register for the sunny Florida free trip: a journalist, who wished to remain anonymous, wrote to me:
I just wanted to let you know that I was thinking about applying to the NPF “heart beat” fellowship until I noticed it was sponsored by Bayer. I probably would have overlooked this, thinking “I can avoid being influenced,” if I hadn’t recently read something I believe was on your site about the pitfalls of industry-sponsored journalism training. A colleague just pointed out that you actually blogged about this very program. Paul Raeburn wrote to you to say he wasn’t sure if a journalist has ever decided against an industry-sponsored training because of anything he or you have written. I just did. So, thank you. And keep up the good work! You are reaching people.