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Medical Journalists Face Ethical Challenges

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Journalists who cover the medical industry face serious ethical issues as the line between news reporting and the promotion of new products becomes blurred, according to a just-published study.

The paper, published in the British Medical Journal, addresses three common practices where reporters and editors face potential conflicts of interest: accepting industry-sponsored awards; participating in industry-sponsored educational programs; and relying too heavily on industry-supplied sources.

Reporters “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 officer,” said co-author Lisa Schwartz, an associate professor of medicine at Dartmouth. “The problem with compelling anecdotes of treatment success is that they may represent the exception, rather than a more typical experience. They can mislead audiences.”

Schwartz and her co-authors, Dartmouth’s Steven Woloshin and Ray Moynihan of Australia’s University of Newcastle, expressed surprise at the number of health care businesses, including pharmaceutical companies, that offer cash prizes and/or travel benefits to journalists who report on their products. They conclude that “journalists accepting these prizes are clearly creating conflicts of interest for themselves” and should cease accepting them.

They add that journalism schools should not accept donations from the health care industry, and publishers must be vigilant in maintaining a wall of separation between editorial and advertising content with regard to drugs and other health-related products.

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