In a nifty bit of reporting, veteran health reporters Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer revealed in “Stealth Marketers,” a story on Slate, that a “Prozac Nation: Revisited,” a radio piece on antidepressants and suicide that ran on many public radio stations recently, “featured four prestigious medical experts discussing the controversial link between antidepressants and suicide” who all reportedly have financial ties to the makers of antidepressants — as does the radio series, known as “The Infinite Mind,” that produced the show.
As the story notes, the extent of the financial ties are unknown because those involved won’t reveal them. Still, Brownlee and Lenzer argue, the show in question, “Prozac Nation: Revisited,” “may stand in a class by itself for concealing bias.” (Then follows a troubling paragraph outlining the conflicts of interest involved.)
is that undisclosed financial conflicts of interest among media sources seem to be popping up all over the place these days. Some experts who appear independent are, in fact, serving as stealth marketers for the drug and biotech industries, and reporters either don’t know about their sources’ conflicts of interests, or they fail to disclose them to the public.
The story goes on to list several examples that point out out badly such influence compromises our ability to trust many news reports.
Conflicts of interest abound even in unexpected places. A recent survey of academic medical centers published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 60 percent of academic department chairs have personal ties to industry—serving as consultants, board members, or paid speakers, while two-thirds of the academic departments had institutional ties to industry. Such ties can be extremely lucrative. And according to these articles in the medical literature, researchers who receive funding from drug and medical-device manufacturers are up to 3.5 times as likely to conclude their study drug or medical device works than are researchers without such funding.
Brownlee and Lenzer put some focus on journalists as well. They cite one study of 544 science stories from top outlets (from 4/06 to 4/08) that checked whether the journalists quoted an independent expert and/or made some attempt to report researchers’ potential conflicts of interest. “Half the stories failed to meet this requirement.”
This doesn’t surprise me. This story prompted a very lively exchange on a science writer listserve I participate in. That exchange confirmed that there’s wide variation in how consistently researchers (and the institutions they work for) reveal their funding sources and in how often or consistently journalists ASK their sources about their funding resources. Science journalism is a field ever in tension between an excitement over the scientific discoveries in question and the more hard-nosed mission to vet the reported results and examine science as a social, political, and commercial activity. Most science journalists are ever balancing interest and enthusiasm with skepticism and critical thinking. They should do so conscientiously, of course; that’s their job.
As Brownlee and Lenzer note, it’s impossible to know at this point a) how much money some of the people involved actually got from drug companies and b) of course, how much it influenced them. But it’s well-establshed that trust in scientific results — especially in the much-tainted arena of psychiatric drugs — depends on a transparency in funding that has been sorely lacking. This sort of thing — undisclosed funding from pharm interest of a show that purports to EXAMINE the controversy over antidepressants and suicide — can’t help matters.