An article to be published in this week's issue of the British Medical Journal has identified an urgent need for greater scrutiny of the financial ties between medical journalists and the for-profit companies they cover in their reporting.
According to the BMJ feature, 'Who's watching the watchdogs?', activities such as the sponsorship of journalism awards by pharmaceutical companies pose a significant conflict of interest in the way treatments can be reported.
Ray Moynihan, conjoint lecturer at the University of Newcastle and co-author, said increasingly many people were learning about new treatments for illnesses through media reports, and these reports can affect the way the public uses health care.
"When we see news stories about someone's complete recovery from an illness due to a particular drug, we need to ask if there is any kind of relationship between the journalist and the pharmaceutical company," he said.
"Just as we demand transparency about the relationship between doctors and pharmaceutical companies, there is also a need for clarity around the connection between these companies and the media."
A collaboration with experts on medical news from the Ivy League Dartmouth University, Drs Lisa Schwartz and Steve Woloshin, the article cites numerous examples of conflicts of interest in the United States in three key areas: sponsorship by pharmaceutical companies of training and further education of journalists at conferences and through professional associations; sponsorship by these companies of journalism awards; and the use of high profile journalists working in a freelance capacity to promote pharmaceutical products.
"Australian media's experience with pharmaceutical companies is similar to that of the United States.
"While many journalists will maintain the separation between news and promotion, it is the public's right to know their affiliations and relationships with pharmaceutical companies so they can determine conflicts of interest."
For interviews with Ray Moynihan or a copy of the article contact Kate Robinson, Manager Media and Public Relations, the University of Newcastle.