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Pfizer Offers Goodies to Journalists

Pfizer Offers Goodies to Journalists

Normally I would salivate over a workshop titled "Let Me Be Clear: Science Journalism in the Age of the Genome and Twitter". OK, yes, I admit to being a nerd about both science and journalism.

When I received an e-mail about this event, I clicked through right away to learn more.

As I read phrases such as "an interactive conversation about media, health research, science and public understanding of these issues" and "Leaders in science, health communications, journalism and social media" I sighed "Ooh, Baby! Gimme more!"

But then my building excitement and anticipation was doused by a real buzz kill in the middle of the sponsor logos...

Event Sponsors

Pfizer?! Sponsoring a gathering of the very journalists who are supposed to be independently examining the company's products and pitches? In truth, I was not completely blind-sided: Pfizer also tosses money to the National Press Foundation to pay for workshops on cancer and Alzheimer's aimed at journalists. (Gary Schwitzer & I wrote about one of those all-expenses-paid journalism workshops last fall.)

Pharmaceutical companies are adapting some of their marketing efforts in response to growing concerns about how gifts and "educational" meetings for physicians alter their clinical decision-making and prescribing practices. A growing number of health care and medical education institutions are restricting or banning such goodies given out to the docs who are supposed to act in the interests of patients, not industry. Medical journals have substantially toughened disclosure requirements for authors. Changing standards and emerging regulations are shining more light on these ties between companies and doctors. (See the excellent reporting by ProPublica, "Dollars for Doctors".)

Ah, but there are no regulations or reporting requirements when it comes to attempts to co-opt journalists. Seems to me there's a natural opportunity there for companies to shape the messages reaching both consumers and policymakers.

Meeting organizers often respond that the corporate sponsors don't dictate the program or panelists. But these events tend to cluster around diseases that the sponsors just happen to have products for. I'm sure that the sponsors are smart enough to realize that the media spotlight will spill over onto their drugs and devices. There is no need for them to be heavy-handed in order to shift the media agenda and ultimately get a marketing boost.

And on a broader level, these kinds of events and the stories that result tend to focus on diseases and medical interventions. I don't see a similar level of attention to public health, how transportation and urban planning policies affect physical activity, how agricultural policies influence the foods we eat, how zoning and industrial policies affect disparities in neighborhood health, and so on. There aren't any commercial products that are likely to get more sales based on enhancing public attention to these topics... so the media agenda is subtly redirected in a way that is consistent with commercial interests.

The Association of Health Care Journalists fundraising policy bars sponsorship or even advertising from companies that sell products or provide services in the health care field, though academic medical centers may be event sponsors. Pfizer would not be welcome at an AHCJ meeting.

As dear to my heart as the topic of journalism about science and medicine may be, I would not feel comfortable attending an event with the sort of corporate ties the "Let Me Be Clear" meeting displays.

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Disclosure: Several years ago I accepted some money from ResearchAmerica for helping to organize a meeting between medical researchers and journalists. There were no named corporate sponsors involved in that meeting.

This post originally appeared in The Script Doctor.

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