Check out your sources for conflicts of interest

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

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It doesn’t take long for many journalists to end up on a slew of PR and marketing lists. Pitch emails roll in 24/7 to promote a product, announce a new study, suggest a story idea or offer up an expert to comment on the pitches or a future story.

Most of these emails end up in the trash, opened or not, but the daily influx occasionally contains a few gems.

Even if introduced by an agent, discovering new and diverse sources can help stave off the temptation to turn to your go-to list of the same knowledgeable, quotable experts you’ve used before. However, as when seeking out any other new source, it’s important to consider the expert’s potential conflicts of interest – financial, ideological, familial or otherwise.

For example, I frequently receive pitches related to vaccines, including introductions to researchers or doctors who can comment on particular vaccines or diseases. But when I received one recently that specified one brand-name flu vaccine the expert could discuss, that specificity was a red flag. Typically, a researcher or doctor who comments on flu vaccines should be able to discuss any of the flu vaccine options (there are many) and often influenza as well. If a pitch specifies a particular vaccine, medication or medical device, it’s more than likely the expert source has some connection to that product or company. In this case, a quick Google search for the person’s name along with “disclosures” pulled up what I needed to know.

With the email I received, the sender’s signature indicated they were reaching out on behalf of a particular company, but the bio of the doctor mentioned did not explicitly state his consulting relationship with the company, and not all emails include a list of experts’ disclosures or other possible conflicts of interest. Further, a recent Stat investigation recently found that such disclosures are even less frequently included with doctors’ posts on social media, which many journalists use to find new sources.

It’s therefore always a journalist’s responsibility to research what conflicts a source might have. Just because someone currently or previously advised or consulted for a company or accepted research funds does not mean they are unreliable. For many stories, an industry representative is essential. But journalists need to know if the person they are talking to might have a vested interest in adding a certain spin to their answers.

In my example, given the varying levels of effectiveness with flu vaccines and how these levels can change from year to year, a doctor who consults for a vaccine manufacturer may suggest that one vaccine is superior to another based on old evidence that doesn’t apply to the current year (or based on little reliable evidence at all). Hopefully, most researchers and doctors mean well and will convey information as accurately and thoroughly as possible. But research shows that they can be influenced by their business relationships nonetheless. (They’re also likely influenced by friendships, though that can be even tougher to uncover.)

Similarly, researchers can have an ideological bias specific to their field or a particular hypothesis within their field. A quick search of PubMed, particularly for editorials, letters and commentaries, is one way to check. Others may be harder to uncover, such as a group of doctors found by The New York Times that were found to be offering non-evidence-based advice on diet and exercise because they were on Coca Cola’s payroll. (Two blogs to follow for regular discussions of nutrition-related researchers’ conflicts of interest are Weighty Matters by Yoni Freedhoff and Food Politics by Marion Nestle.)

To help journalists seeking independent sources, HealthNewsReview.org provides a list of more than 100 experts without industry ties. But these won’t cover every area a journalist reports, and sometimes checking out a source simply requires a bit more digging.

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