Friday, October 10, 2008

Report or Promote?

News media often caught in the middle when reporting on medical research studies

News articles reporting on medication studies often fail to report pharmaceutical company funding and frequently refer to medications by their brand names despite newspaper editors' contention that this is not the case.

That’s the conclusion of a study in the October 1 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association. With that in mind, we asked Alan Bavley, medical writer at the Kansas City Star since 1988, to comment on how he and the Star make coverage decisions on such studies and other research.

Here’s the interview edited for length and clarity. Share your comments by clicking here.

What criteria do you and the Star use to determine whether or not a story on drug studies will be covered?

First of all, I rarely do stories on drug studies. That's a choice I have made for several reasons:

Since I am a medical desk of one at the Star, I have to select carefully which stories I report and which we let wire services cover. Not many of the drug studies that appear in the journals I monitor rise to the level of something I feel compelled to cover. (Drug comparison studies or studies of drug efficacy in particular situations may be highly valuable to a clinician, but may have little meaning to a general newspaper audience.)

How do I judge something's news value? That's more art than science and would need a whole separate discussion.

Often when I learn about a new drug, it's when the Food and Drug Administration has just approved it and the manufacturer is promoting it to the press. I don't want to write stories about any things that are essentially product or service promotions, so I pass on these.

There's an ethical concern here, as well. Some drugs, like COX-2 inhibitor pain relievers, sounded like great ideas. But it took time for their side effects to become apparent.

I don't think it's wise to write enthusiastically about the latest drugs when a lot of the evidence is still out. I would have hated to have been one of those reporters who wrote about that new fen-phen diet craze.

Since Kansas City is the home to the Stowers Institute and other research centers, does that influence your decision to cover a scientific study generated locally?

Remember what I was saying about the art of news judgment?

Well, proximity increases news value. I'm more likely to cover good research when it is produced locally. And when a national clinical study involves local investigators I'm more likely to write about it myself than to rely on a wire service story.

Your story on October 5 addressed conflicts of interest for doctors receiving gifts from pharmaceutical representatives. Is there a similar policy in place for reporters covering the industry?

The Kansas City Star has an extensive conflict of interest policy regulating our interactions with the people and institutions we cover. (Click here to review.)

A story in the Boston Globe noted a "Statement of Principles" by the Association of Health Care Journalists to "investigate and report possible links between sources of information and those who promote a new idea or therapy" and to "report the complete risks and benefits of any treatment, along with the possible outcomes of alternative approaches."

Is this breaking new ground or have journalists generally been following such principles?

The AHCJ statement of principles is a lengthy set of guidelines for good, thorough, sensitive and ethical reporting. Reporters have been receiving advice of this kind for many years from many sources. Reporting on the source of funding for studies started to appear more frequently after medical journals themselves began reporting this information with the studies they published.

Have journalists generally been following such principles? I would say they generally have been guided by such principles.

In an ideal world, these principles might always be observed. But journalism is still a rough and tumble environment. There are deadlines to meet. Limited space in a newspaper. Limited time for a broadcast.

We try to do our best, but no, we can't always report with the thoroughness suggested by AHCJ.

The news media can be easy to target with charges of "biased" coverage. Shouldn't it also be the responsibility of consumers of news to seek out as much information as possible when presented with a new scientific study?

I can't think why any newspaper reporter would be deliberately biased toward a particular drug or treatment. We don't prescribe or treat. And we shouldn't have a financial, political or emotional investment in any particular treatment.

Reporters are people who just like to tell people stuff, interesting facts, compelling stories. Let the chips fall where they may.

And should consumers seek out more information about the drugs they take? Certainly. Newspapers report the news about drugs; they're not intended to be a PDR. Of course, patients should discuss medications with their doctors and pharmacists, read the package inserts, and go online or to their neighborhood library.

A newspaper isn't the final word on anything. After all, there's always going to be an entirely new one tomorrow.


Experts Conclude Pfizer Manipulated Studies, New York Times, October 8

University: Stem-cell study used falsified data, Associated Press, October 8

What do you think? Share your comments by clicking here.



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