Medical journalists need improved conflict-of-interest standards, say Dartmouth researchers

November 19, 2008

Two Dartmouth researchers call for greater scrutiny of the relationship between medical journalists and the health care industries they cover. Their study was published online today, Nov. 19, in the British Medical Journal, or BMJ.

The BMJ paper outlines 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," says Steven Woloshin, an author on the paper and an associate professor of medicine and of community and family medicine at Dartmouth Medical School (DMS). "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?"

Co-authors on the paper, titled "Who's Watching the Watchdogs? Medical Journalism and Entanglement," are Lisa Schwartz, associate professor of medicine and of community and family medicine at DMS, and Ray Moynihan with the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Newcastle in Australia. Schwartz and Woloshin are also affiliated with the Veteran's Affairs Outcomes Group and the Center for Medicine and the Media at The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice.

The authors believe relationships between drug companies and journalists might result in more favorable news stories, in a similar fashion to how industry funding of medical research is associated with more favorable research outcomes.

Regarding 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."

The authors were surprised by the widespread business of pharmaceutical and other healthcare businesses offering cash prizes and travel benefits to journalists. The paper states, "… we believe journalists accepting these prizes are clearly creating conflicts-of-interest for themselves" and calls for journalists to stop accepting these sponsored awards.

Schwartz says that the practice of medical journalism has evolved to blur the lines between traditional news reporting and producing advertising materials that mimic reporting. News corporations, which depend on advertising, need to be especially 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," says Schwartz. "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."

To enhance credibility and reestablish trust in the media, the authors recommend similar steps to those being taken in the medical field: journalists and organizations that train journalists should not accept funding or prizes from healthcare industries, and journalists should routinely divulge their own conflicts of interest and those of their sources.

"The news media plays a vital role," says Woloshin. "If medical journalists compromise, or appear to compromise, their independence, society loses."

Source: Dartmouth College

Explore further: Cancer drugs' high prices not justified by cost of development, study contends

Related Stories

Cancer drugs' high prices not justified by cost of development, study contends

September 12, 2017
(HealthDay)— Excusing the sky-high price tags of many new cancer treatments, pharmaceutical companies often blame high research and development (R&D) costs.

Medical physicists say fear of diagnostic radiation is overblown

January 12, 2012
An association of physicists in the medical field has warned patients not to decline diagnostic radiation procedures because of perceptions that the tests may be harmful.

Is it possible to use food as medicine for a specific disease?

March 22, 2016
"What if you could cure all your health problems and lose 10 pounds in just 7 days? That's an amazing claim, hard to believe for sure, but I have seen this miracle so many times in my practice that even I am starting to believe ...

Quality medical journal news releases can help newspapers do a better job informing public

January 31, 2012
Medical journal press releases are the most direct way that journals communicate with the news media about new research. According to a study in the British Medical Journal, press release quality appears to have an important ...

Better medical education is one solution to the opioid crisis

August 8, 2017
We are in the middle of an overdose crisis in Canada and around the world. Opioid overdose is a complex problem, but opioid addiction can be managed with effective interventions. Nonetheless, many evidence-based interventions ...

Keck Medicine physicians become first to implant epilepsy-controlling device

December 19, 2013
On Dec. 18, Keck Medicine of USC became the world's first medical center to implant a responsive brain device newly approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat epilepsy, with potential to help millions of ...

Recommended for you

Female researchers pay more attention to sex and gender in medicine

November 7, 2017
When women participate in a medical research paper, that research is more likely to take into account the differences between the way men and women react to diseases and treatments, according to a new study by Stanford researchers.

Drug therapy from lethal bacteria could reduce kidney transplant rejection

August 3, 2017
An experimental treatment derived from a potentially deadly microorganism may provide lifesaving help for kidney transplant patients, according to an international study led by investigators at Cedars-Sinai.

Exploring the potential of human echolocation

June 25, 2017
People who are visually impaired will often use a cane to feel out their surroundings. With training and practice, people can learn to use the pitch, loudness and timbre of echoes from the cane or other sounds to navigate ...

Team eradicates hepatitis C in 10 patients following lifesaving transplants from infected donors

April 30, 2017
Ten patients at Penn Medicine have been cured of the Hepatitis C virus (HCV) following lifesaving kidney transplants from deceased donors who were infected with the disease. The findings point to new strategies for increasing ...

'bench to bedside to bench': Scientists call for closer basic-clinical collaborations

March 24, 2017
In the era of genome sequencing, it's time to update the old "bench-to-bedside" shorthand for how basic research discoveries inform clinical practice, researchers from The Jackson Laboratory (JAX), National Human Genome Research ...

The ethics of tracking athletes' biometric data

January 18, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—Whether it is a FitBit or a heart rate monitor, biometric technologies have become household devices. Professional sports leagues use some of the most technologically advanced biodata tracking systems to ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.