Study: Health journalists face ‘entanglements’

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

A paper just published in BMJ discusses financial ties between medical journalists and the companies they cover. The authors look at three areas of “entanglement”: education of journalists, awards for journalists, and the actual practice of journalism.

The paper points out that industry sponsorship of training of journalists can raise concerns, pointing specifically at the University of North Carolina’s master’s degree in medical journalism, the American Medical Writers Association and the Unity convention.

It also looks at sponsored award programs, such as those sponsored by Eli Lilly, Boehringer Ingelheim and Roche, and says “journalists who accept such prizes may be engendering conflicts of interest.”

The third area of concern, according to the paper, involves “entanglements” – including situations in which companies or their public relations firms provide patients for journalists to interview or when journalists quote sources without disclosing their financial ties to the industry. It also says that television network Accent Health, which is owned by CNN, “overtly offers sponsors, including drug companies, the chance to boost sales of their products.”

The paper does point to AHCJ and its policies as a “way forward:”

“A way forward may be provided by the Association of Health Care Journalists, which has tough rules barring advertising or sponsorship from private, for-profit healthcare entities, including drug companies, device manufacturers, and insurers. And it is encouraging that some media outlets are now asking reporters to routinely report conflicts of interest of quoted sources.”

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