Ties That Blind

Following the funding trail in health and medical reporting

For nearly thirty years, the editors of medical journals have relied on public disclosure of researchers’ conflicts of interest to alert readers to the possibility of bias in published studies, especially when they are funded by the medical industry. It has been well documented in medical literature that the outcomes of industry-funded research tend to favor the sponsors’ commercial needs.

In recent years, journalism has followed suit. Many media outlets have begun requiring reporters to report the industry ties of quoted expert sources. The Association of Health Care Journalists puts disclosure at the top of its statement of principles. But some reporters still omit this basic information about the clinicians and researchers who generate medical news:

A New York Times front-page story on lung-cancer screening, by Gina Kolata, led with the claim—based on a study in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine—that “millions of lives could be saved” by giving smokers annual CT scans for lung cancer. Earlier this year, The Cancer Letter, an investigative weekly, revealed that the study had been funded in part by a nonprofit called the Foundation for Lung Cancer: Early Detection, Prevention & Treatment, which, in turn, was wholly funded by the Vector Group, the parent company of tobacco giant Liggett & Myers. The Times covered the revelations of the tobacco-industry link with another front-page story.

Wall Street Journal reporter Melinda Beck’s column touting the benefits of vitamin D didn’t mention that her most prominently quoted source, the executive director of “the nonprofit Vitamin D Council,” worked for an organization whose primary corporate sponsor manufactured vitamin supplements, including vitamin D.

Steven Sternberg of USA Today allowed the president of the National Osteoporosis Foundation to voice skepticism about risks from Merck’s Fosamax, a popular osteoporosis drug. He didn’t tell readers that both the president and the foundation took money from Merck.

A story by David Brown of The Washington Post about a study playing down the risks from drug-eluting stents failed to mention that the study was funded by Boston Scientific, Cordis, and Abbott Vascular, all makers of such stents.

Reuters’s Julie Steenhuysen didn’t mention that the Harvard researcher behind a recent study suggesting that Novartis’s Femara protects against breast-cancer recurrence worked as a consultant for Novartis among other major pharmaceutical firms.

Hilary Hylton of Time quoted Jessica Kahn of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital dismissing the side effects of Merck’s human-papilloma-virus vaccine (Gardasil), but failed to mention that Kahn had been a paid speaker at Merck-sponsored events.

Melissa Healy of the Los Angeles Times questioned the comparable efficacy of generic drugs to the original product, but didn’t note that one of her main sources received consulting and speaking fees from a host of brand-name manufacturers.

These examples are not isolated instances. A recent survey by University of Minnesota journalism professor Gary Schwitzer found that half of 170 stories about medical studies quoted experts with ties to manufacturers with a stake in the outcome of the research. Only 39 percent of those stories—thirty-three out of eighty-five—reported those ties.

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Merrill Goozner a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, directs the Center for Science in the Public Interest's Integrity in Science project, which monitors the press and scientific literature for failures to disclose relevant conflicts of interest.