A team of Dartmouth researchers says that there is a need for greater scrutiny of the relationship between medical journalists and health care industrial sources, as pharmaceutical companies can influence the media by offering some sops.
Steven Woloshin, an associate professor of Medicine and of Community And Family Medicine, says that there are three areas where journalists might become entangled in conflict-of-interest issues: during educational activities that may be drug company sponsored, when accepting sponsored awards, or in the day-to-day practice of reporting the news by relying too heavily on industry supplied sources.
"The media play a role as society's watchdogs. Good medical journalism can expose links between doctors and rewards from pharmaceutical companies. But who's looking to see whether the journalists are being influenced?" writes Woloshin, an author on the paper that has been published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), titled "Who's Watching the Watchdogs? Medical Journalism and Entanglement".
The report says that relationships between drug companies and journalists may lead to more favourable news stories, in the same manner as industry funding of medical research results in more favourable research outcomes.
As regards education, Woloshin says: "Corporate funding and sponsorships are not new to academia, but we think that there is the possibility that a sponsor could subtly invoke a sense of loyalty from a journalist. There should be no such temptation for journalism students or their teachers."
Woloshin, who jointly wrote the report with Associate Professor Lisa Schwartz, also highlights the fact that pharmaceutical and other healthcare businesses that offer cash prizes and travel benefits to journalists are enjoying a greater market share these days.
"We believe journalists accepting these prizes are clearly creating conflicts-of-interest for themselves," the authors write.
They have even urged journalists to stop accepting sponsored awards.
The authors say that the practice of medical journalism has evolved to blur the lines between traditional news reporting and producing advertising materials that mimic reporting.
Schwartz suggests that news corporations, which depend on advertising, try to be vigilant in maintaining a separation between their editorial mission and their advertising sales.
"Journalists also need to clearly disclose when their sources have ties to industry, whether they are quoting patient groups, opinion leaders, or patients referred to them by an industry public relations office. The problem with compelling anecdotes of treatment success is that they may represent the exception, rather than a more typical experience. This can mislead audiences," says Schwartz.
The authors also write media organisations' credibility can be enhanced if journalists stop accepting funding or prizes from healthcare industries, and routinely divulge their own conflicts of interest and those of their sources.
"The news media plays a vital role. If medical journalists compromise, or appear to compromise, their independence, society loses," says Woloshin.