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BMI Says TV Networks Biased Against Pharma Industry, But There’s More To This Story
Earlier this month, the Business and Media Institute (BMI) released research, "Prescription for Bias," indicating that there is a “recurring networks bias against the pharmaceutical industry.”  BMI charges that TV journalists treat “drugs as an entitlement rather than an expensive to create product, refusing to credit and often ignoring entirely the companies that made the medicine.”  The group is urging the networks to clean up their act by:

-Mentioning the manufacturer: BMI says that journalists should be sure to reference the company when discussing a drug and, where possible, include commentary from company representatives.

-Avoiding extremes:  BMI asserts that TV media tends to portray medicines as “perfect cures” or “dangerous killers.”  Rather than doing this, journalists should “relay the pros and cons of drugs” and tell patients to rely on their physicians for guidance.

-Removing passion:  BMI urges reporters to speak “dispassionately on the role of money in medicine.  [Don’t] just report on the costs of drugs to the consumer, but the costs borne by companies in researching and developing them [i.e., Tufts research indicating that companies spend an average of $800 million on R&D.]”

-Bringing pharma into stories: According to BMI “news consumers gain a fuller perspective on the issue when drug company executives can bring the perspective of the industry to bear.”

After learning about the study, I spoke with Dan Gainor, director of BMI, to discuss the research.  We had a very interesting conversation and I told him my verdict on the study.  Overall, I think many of BMI's recommendations make sense as they represent good journalism.  However, I believe there’s more to this story. 

Comment 1: You Won’t Find In-depth Reporting On Most Evening Newscasts

Granted, TV journalists should take the time to include information about who manufactured a medicine and industry perspective in stories.  However, those of us who pay attention to evening newscasts know that you won’t find much in-depth reporting on a host of issues, including pharmaceuticals.  Does the failure to include relevant information in a story indicate bias or sloppy reporting?  In many cases I believe it’s the latter.  

Comment 2: TV News Is Important, But People Get Info From Many Sources

We know that many Americans get their news from newscasts.  However, they also read dispatches online, listen to the radio and (a few) read newspapers.  In my experience, print and online publications tend to include much of the information BMI says TV journalists omit.  As for including commentary from pharma, that would be nice, but reporters favor third party sources.  I just don’t see that changing anytime soon.   

Comment 3: Some Believe TV Media Favors Big Pharma

While BMI asserts that TV networks are biased toward industry, others believe the opposite is true.  In 2005, The Center for Media and Democracy charged that “drug giants rely on ethically-challenged newsrooms to not just deliver their product's selling points through undisclosed [Video News Releases], but to edit out the safety warnings that might dissuade viewers from considering their new remedy.”  Video News Releases are edited, video and interview packages that pharmaceutical companies sometimes put together when a drug is launched or for other purposes.

Just like many other pharma communications, VNRs are reviewed and approved by drug firm’s legal and regulatory teams.  They not only contain commentary from industry scientists, but third party physicians who were involved in the development of the medication.  In addition, no VNR goes out without containing fair balance information.  

Now, it’s up to journalists to decide what portions of a VNR to include in a newscast.  Did I rely on reporters to omit this information?  No, I simply knew that journalists would use the content they felt was most useful.  Fair balance information is almost never mentioned by reporters routinely.  We also made it very clear that the VNR was sponsored by a pharma company.  However, my point is not to rehash the old debate about VNRs.  What’s clear here is that people on both sides of the political spectrum believe that TV journalists are either too lax or biased against the industry.  

Comment 4: Change Will Require More Companies To Proactively Report R&D Info

BMI wants reporters to talk about the costs of brining a drug to market.  According to Tufts, drug firms spend an average of $800 million to develop a new medication.  I think this is asking too much.  First, the Tufts number is very controversial, which makes reporters less likely to report it.  Second, some drugs cost a lot to develop (especially biologics) and others much less.  This is especially true for new medications within well-established drug classes like ACE inhibitors.

I think journalists would be more likely to report on research and development costs if pharma companies proactively communicated this information.  For example, drug firms could include sentences like this in FDA approval releases: “Acme Pharmaceuticals developed XX medication over a twelve year period and spent $600 million to bring it to market.”

Final Thoughts  

Clearly, people with differing views believe that the news media is either too soft or too cozy with the pharmaceutical industry.  Your perspective depends on what data you are looking at.  As usual, things are rarely black and white. 

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2 Comments/Trackbacks

BMI have a good point here: even when one new generic drug was hailed as a “major advance in combating breast cancer” and a “major medical breakthrough,” its manufacturer was given only a passing mention on one network. I believe the media should remember the most important "W" from the 5 Ws: five W’s - who, what, where, when, and why.

Fantastic post!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

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