A journalist’s non-disclosure of millions in pharmaceutical company payments is an obvious conflict of interest. But Gary Schwitzer, director of the University of Minnesota’s Health Journalism Program, explains that what’s ailing news consumers is all the other subtle, insidious ways that Big Pharma’s influence turns up in the news we use.
Artist: Wolf Parade
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Of course, the public can decide if it’s got the facts. But Gary Schwitzer, director of the University of Minnesota’s Health Journalism Program, says facts are hard to come by when it comes to the influence of pharmaceutical money on reporting. He’s spent years rating health news reporting and advocating for full disclosure, and he concedes that untangling the complex pharma ties of guests on a public radio show or experts quoted in a medical journal is a tall order. But, Schwitzer says, the least they can do is ask. GARY SCHWITZER: We should be asking about and disclosing what we know about conflict of interest in our sources as a regular part of our interviewing, reporting, researching and writing. It has to be there on every story.
Journal policies on disclosure of conflict of interest are all over the map. But even when it is there, even when it is listed, some journalists won't pick up on that disclosure, or they will minimize it.
A case in point: You’ll probably remember, I believe it was two weeks ago, this major study, we were told, in The New England Journal of Medicine on cholesterol, on the drugs called statins. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE] GARY SCHWITZER: And it was all kicked off by this new test called a CRP, or C-reactive protein test. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let us just say that that research seemed to find that even healthy people with relatively low cholesterol would benefit from taking that drug, to the tune of, I don't know, a billion dollars of extra sales. GARY SCHWITZER: Well, exactly. Some journalists reported that the study was funded by the drug company, AstraZeneca, that made the drug that was studied, and some, fewer, reported that the principal investigator actually held a patent on that CRP test that kicked the whole process off. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But if experts like Dr. Goodwin want to keep their ties a secret, it’s hard to know what they are, isn't it? GARY SCHWITZER: It can be hard, but we should be able to find out. BROOKE GLADSTONE: How? GARY SCHWITZER: On a website that I publish, a website that grades health news coverage across the country, called Healthnewsreview.org, we now have a list on our home page of independent experts that now numbers more than a hundred internationally, top people who have sworn to us that they have no financial conflict of interest with industry right now. And these people should be in your Rolodex, anyway. BROOKE GLADSTONE: That list is based on self-reporting. How can you be sure that you've been told the truth? GARY SCHWITZER: It is an imperfect but certainly a better practice than what apparently took place in this instance, where it wasn't clear that anyone asked. An article in the – formerly The British Medical Journal, now called The BMJ, just this last week talked about five or six different levels of industry influence on the dissemination of messages to the American public, largely through journalism, through awards programs that give journalists big cash prizes and send them on international travel, or on television programming that appears in doctors’ waiting offices, where a journalist appears, supposedly giving integrity to the message, but indeed it’s a one-sided product message.
There are endless issues in this arena of industry influence that I think is one of the biggest concerns that we face. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So if you were to rate the sins of health reporters, what do you think the top five would be? GARY SCHWITZER: Gullibility and naiveté as number one; a failure to discuss costs as number two; as number three, the failure to tell both how small might be the potential benefit and how large might be the potential harms; number four, to get independent sources; and, number five, to always be looking for conflict of interest in those sources. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow, I didn't expect you to be ready with five, just like that. [LAUGHS] Gary, thank you very much. GARY SCHWITZER: Well, thanks for your continued interest in these really important issues. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Gary Schwitzer is the director of the University of Minnesota’s Health Journalism Program and founder of Healthnewsreview.org. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]