Conflicts of interest in health care journalism. Who’s watching the watchdogs?

16.06.2017

Ben Harder, a journalist with US News & World Report, recently tweeted, “Pharma ads subsidize many health reporters’ salaries.” Elisabeth Rosenthal, who now heads Kaiser Health News after a long career with the New York Times, tweeted in that same discussion, “Many of my articles in the NYT carried pop-up ads for pharma. Infuriating.” Many journalists are aware of the drug industry’s attempts to gain positive attention by buying placement within the nation’s health care news.  A few occasionally write or talk about it, as Harder and Rosenthal did publicly.

But I don’t think we talk often enough about why it matters if health care industry entities are allowed to advertise within, or sponsor, health care journalism content.  Americans spend more than $3 trillion on health care. Conflicts of interest in health care and research are rampant. The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) last month published a special edition all about health care conflicts of interest.  JAMA included a Viewpoint article entitled, “Conflict of Interest:  Why Does it Matter?”  The first line:  “Preservation of trust is the essential purpose of policies about conflict of interest.”

But who talks about conflicts of interest in health care journalism? In a Gallup poll, “Honesty/Ethics in Professions,” respondents rated journalists’ honesty and ethical standards below psychiatrists, chiropractors and bankers….and just above lawyers.

There is great potential harm in a further erosion of trust in journalism and in health care.  There is a great potential harm in journalists – and the audience they serve – becoming numb to the presence of and influence of drug companies and other industry entities in the news and information disseminated to the public.  There is, as we have begun to point out repeatedly in our review of news stories and PR news releases, advertising and marketing messages, often a polluted stream of contaminated information reaching the public.  Often vested interests pollute that stream.  (We will discuss these potential harms in more detail in part 3 of this series.)

That’s why I think that this issue demands and deserves a deeper dive. Why now?  Because, as outlined in this series, there are a growing number of questionable alliances between a growing number of news organizations and health care industry sponsors. Money is exchanging hands and I ask “Why? Why do news organizations enter into these arrangements?  Why do they feel they need to?  Have they exhausted all other options?”  I want to shine a light on a collection of news organization practices.  I’m raising the same types of questions that journalists often raise as they report on various issues.  But I’m asking them because I don’t see enough journalists talking about it when their own organizations accept industry money.

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