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Criterion #6 Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?


Healthcare–and health care journalism–is rife with conflicts of interest. When reading a story about a new intervention, people deserve to know if the sources in the story have financial or other relationships that might bias them, even subconsciously.

They also deserve to hear the opinion of objective, independent third-party experts, who are vital to backstopping exaggerated claims.

47% of news stories we’ve reviewed have rated Not Satisfactory on this criterion.

Conflicts of interest are common among people making claims about new treatments, tests, products or procedures. Examples include:

  • A trial paid for by the drug manufacturer.
  • Researchers employed by or getting fees from a drug company.
  • A spokesman for a device manufacturer.
  • Doctors who are early adopters and true believers in a new device.
  • An inventor or researcher who is seeking patents.

All of these people want their product or their idea to look as good as it can.

News stories should identify the source of the story (news release, journal article, editorial, scientific meeting presentation, etc.) and make obvious the extent to which that source is likely to be conflicted (e.g., a PR consultant working for the company said; or Dr. Smith, who received a company grant to perform the study, said…)

They also must include the input of a trusted independent source with expertise on the subject to comment on the claims made. (Ideally, more than one such independent source would be used). But often stories only have one source, and it’s someone with “a dog in the hunt.”

This is an issue we follow closely–see our latest updates here.

Gary Schwitzer is publisher of HealthNewsReview.org:

Satisfactory examples

A pat on the back to HealthDay for thorough report on ulcerative colitis drug
As reviewers noted, the study’s lead author is clearly identified, the story clearly states that Pfizer funded the study, and that the lead author has consulted for Pfizer. In addition, two independent sources are included in the article. One of those sources was also the author of an editorial on the NEJM paper, which the story notes.

An array of sources make this STAT story on aspirin task force recommendations very strong
We applauded the breadth of sourcing in this piece. Readers are told that Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, is the vice-chair of the US Preventive Services Task Force, and she weighs in with her assessment. Other physicians, however, seem independent of the USPSTF and are unlikely to be financially conflicted with the manufacturers of aspirin.

Video games as medicine? Sourcing a strong point in coverage of regulatory aspects
This is a key strength of this NPR story. Several different experts and viewpoints are presented, so that readers are shown a range of opinions and perspectives. The affiliations of key sources are identified, so that readers can see how their interests might influence their outlook.

Not Satisfactory examples

Drink more water to reduce UTI risk, urge researchers who work for Evian’s manufacturer
The story included an independent source. However, it unfortunately left out that Danone, which sells several brands of bottled water, was heavily involved in the study.

WSJ story on prostate procedure: No independent sources were quoted
Claus G. Roehrborn, who is referred to as a co-author on studies of enlarged prostate treatments, is a paid consultant to the study’s funder, NxThera (see this 2015 paper), but the story didn’t disclose that. Input from an independent source would have made this story much stronger.

Bloomberg’s conflicted sources ‘love’ new cholesterol drugs — readers need to know about financial relationships with pharma
The story quotes an expert source who says he “loves these drugs” and calls them “lifesaving” — even though they’ve never been shown to prolong survival — and fails to disclose to readers that the source is a paid consultant to Amgen, which makes the drug being reported on. A second source complains about the difficulty of getting insurance coverage for these drugs, but the story again fails to mention that he’s a paid consultant to Regeneron, which makes a competing monoclonal antibody.