Bitter Pill

The drug industry excels at turning reporters from watchdogs into lapdogs

| July 14, 2005

The PR machines of drug companies purr like the Jaguars of so many physicians. Such precision tuning has given pill pushers the ability to manipulate media coverage so that their new medicines hit the market with a spoonful of positive publicity. Many reporters are getting caught in their traps, while others are avoiding them, Trudy Lieberman writes in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Journalists with integrity who cover the drug industry have it tough. Finding a source in the drug-development field untainted by industry sponsorship is 'like finding a needle in a haystack,' says Peter Rost, a Pfizer vice president of marketing. Company PR reps routinely try to force-feed the press sources with conflicts of interest and serve up stories-on-a-platter. (Lieberman cites several instances of esteemed news outlets wolfing them down.) Plus, it's not an uncommon practice for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which often acts as an adjunct to the industry, to blacklist muckraking reporters: 'The FDA is as obstructionist as the drug companies, if not more so,' says CBS correspondent Sharyl Attkisson.

Despite the drug beat's challenges, Lieberman is critical of recent soft-hitting reporting: '[T]he press too often is caught up in the same drug-industry marketing web that also ensnares doctors, academic researchers, even the FDA, leaving the public without a reliable watchdog.' She points to the Cox 2 fiasco as an example of where coverage with real teeth might have prevented deaths and suffering.

The press' current stint as a PR tool for drug-makers coincides with an upsurge in ads hawking pills during TV news programs and in print. Whether or not the media has acquiesced for the sake of revenue is unclear. Lieberman raises an eyebrow, but, she explains, 'This doesn't mean that news executives consider such income when they make story assignments, but in places where the wall between the news side and the business side has weakened, the temptations are stronger than ever.'
-- Archie Ingersoll

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