According to a recent article in the prestigious British Medical Journal, many medical journalists, particularly those covering medical conferences, have conflicts of interest as bad as or worse than the physicians they're covering.
The article, entitled "Journalists: anything to declare?" is by Ben Goldacre, a physician and writer in London who has a column in The Guardian (a British daily) and is the author of the entertaining Bad Science blog.
[The full reference is BMJ 2007;335:480 (8 September), doi:10.1136/bmj.39328.450000.59 -- You can read an excerpt for free, but in order to read the full article you'll need a subscription or $$.]
According to Dr. Goldacre,
Much as I like to think that I am cynical and worldly, being a doctor and a journalist, the world still holds some surprises for me. Conflict of interest is a subject that creates heat and concern, not least among journalists, who often stumble on a banal and openly declared interest and use it to build fantasies of medical corruption and Pulitzer prizes . . .
Given the puritanical stance of so many journalists, I was surprised last week by an email circular I received from a science writers' mailing list. It was from the Aspirin Foundation, a group funded by the drug industry, and it was offering—on behalf of Bayer Healthcare—to pay expenses for journalists to attend the European Society of Cardiology's conference in Vienna. . . .
[I]n my naivety I had no idea such things went on. I pinged off a few emails to friends and colleagues. Most poked fun at my innocence—quite rightly—but some were helpful. Not only is it extremely common for journalists to take money from drug companies, but there have been some astonishing cases in recent history, including one memorable case where a PR company invited journalists to "an exclusive preview" of new laser eye technology, with the offer to "discuss free treatment in return for editorial features."
"I organise the media programmes for a number of medical conferences run by scientific societies," said one person who, without wishing to be melodramatic, has asked to remain anonymous, "and I reckon at least 50% of the journalists present are paid for by drug companies. They get pretty well looked after too—first class travel, five star hotels, posh dinners, etc. Some of them indulge in double dipping, where they are paid by the day by the drug company and then by the publication that takes whatever they have written.
Dr. Goldacre goes on to decry the closeness between journalists and the PR folks from the pharmaceutical companies and the revolving door between journalism and PR.
I have a number of reactions to Dr. Goldacre's article.
- I subscribe to many science writers' mailing lists, but I never saw that venal enticement from Bayer's astroturf organization. I wonder what list it was on and what exactly it said.
- What am I, chopped liver? I've never received such an offer from a pharmaceutical company.
- I simply don't believe Dr. Goldacre's correspondent who estimates that 50% of the journalists (or more!) are "paid for by drug companies." I've been in this profession for decades, and while I've heard whispers about such practices, I would have heard shouts if every second reporter was in the pocket of Big Pharma.
- Perhaps this is a case of a paranoid meeting organizer. Some seem to spend a lot of time trying to weed out people who (by their definition) are not "legitimate, credentialed press."
- Maybe it's that I'm as naive as Dr. Goldacre, or maybe this practice is far less common than he maintains. I do know that some pharmaceutical companies send writers to medical meetings and pay them to write meeting reports, but those are almost always for internal consumption.
- The only time I've ever seen medical journalists flying First Class is when they're using their hard-earned frequent-flyer miles.
- And don't get me started on five star hotels. Not every reporter likes staying there. As I've written before, "You can tell you're in a five-star hotel by the beautiful view, the plush bathrobes, and the disquieting sensation of a disembodied hand rooting around in your pockets for every last bit of spare change."
- And posh dinners? I feel fortunate if I have a minute to set my pen down and gobble a little piece of the rubber chicken at a dinner presentation.
- I think that in his article Dr. Goldacre is engaging in a bit of playground repartee: "I'm rubber you're glue, your words bounce off me and stick to you," or, "I know you are, but what am I?" I'm afraid I don't find those "arguments" any more persuasive now than when I was in third grade.
- Having said all that, of course I'd be appalled if I learned that a journalist accepted money from Big Pharma and then published a seemingly objective article in the independent press. Just as I'm appalled when I see physicians hawking drugs made by their pharmaceutical company overlords at supposedly independent medical meetings.
- If journalists are doing this, they're ashamed and they're keeping it secret. Physicians, on the other hand, seem all too delighted to brag about how many companies they've served as a consultant for, or to express sorrow that they don't have as many conflicts as their colleagues.
(Tip of the hat to PRWatch which called my attention to Dr. Goldacre's article.)