South African academic: Conflict of interest went unnoticed in obesity stories

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

In a column for South Africa’s The Media magazine, Harry Dugmore, MTN Chair of Media and Mobile Communication at the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University, tries to figure out why it is so difficult to produce good journalism. Yes, he writes, it has something to do with the need for constant devotion to the facts and numbers and science, but that’s true of many beats.

For health, he writes, there are simply deeper forces at work. They relate to the sky-high stakes that come with health care’s status as a multibillion-dollar, life-and-death industry, but run deeper (emphasis mine):

What might be different in health journalism is that there are additional scientific and technical challenges. And, beyond these, there are also all sorts of biases and beliefs (both of journalist and audiences) that have to be unpacked and often confronted. Our existential duel with our own mortality; our views on what makes us ill and what gets us better, are ingrained in cultural practice, power relations, and ideological positioning.

Nothing is uncontested.

rhodes
Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa. Photo by Pierre Nel via Flickr

To illustrate his point, Dugmore examines a recent set of headlines that mushroomed across the country detailing the nation’s obesity. The stories all reported on a well-known phenomenon and had the ring of truth, but neglected to mention that they were based on the results of a 500-person survey conducted by GlaxoSmithKline to coincide with the new availability of the South African equivalent of Alli as an over-the-counter drug.

What’s scary is that no journalist at all looked at the now freely available weight-loss drug, its purported efficacy, its side effects and real dangers, and the international controversy over its shift from prescription to non-prescription status. Arguably, that is neither GlaxoSmithKline’s nor its public relations company Magna Carta’s fault. They were, after all, just doing their jobs.

For more on the center which employs Dugmore, which he concedes is not without its own conflicts of interest, see our coverage of the work of his colleague, Guy Berger.

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