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This is the unedited version of the Media Bites column which appearedin Australian Doctor in August 1999. The published version may havehad minor changes.
Fancy a trip to Paris? You will fly business class, stay at a luxury hotel,and dine well. No strings attached.
Not surprisingly, it’s the sort of offer which journalists find hard to refuse.
Especially when it is likely to yield stories about that sexiest of medicaltopics, Viagra.
Another rash of stories about impotency and related treatments poppedup in the media several weeks ago, with headlines such as “Impotencerate set to skyrocket”. They were written by Rada Rouse, the nationalmedical correspondent for Australian Associated Press (the wire agencywhose stories are run widely by newspapers, radio and television), andby Belinda Hickman, the medical writer for The Australian newspaper.
Pfizer sponsored both journalists to attend a World Health Organisationconference on impotence in Paris. The company also paid foraccommodation and some travel costs for aMedical Observer journalist,Louise Pemble.
Rouse was not particularly surprised when the invitation arrived. Duringthree years of covering health, she has had other such junkets, includinga previous trip with Pfizer to an impotence conference in Amsterdam(which was also attended by Australian Doctor’s Dr Adam Taor). Eli Lillytook her to Indianapolis, and Bristol-Myers Squibb and Sanofi jointlyfunded a trip to an American Heart Association congress in NewOrleans. Bayer also offered a trip to Germany, but she was unable to go.
Like most journalists, Hickman has also had several junkets.
Whether we should accept such “gifts” is attracting some long overdueattention in the wake of the John Laws scandal, which has left the mediafeeling rather sensitive about the conflict of interest issue.
“I don’t think it (the Paris trip) is anything like the Laws thing,” saysRouse. Of course, it is nothing so sinister. But it does illustrate thelengths to which vested interests will go to influence the media.
Rouse, Hickman and Pemble all stress their independence and that theysought comment from sources other than those pushed by the company.
One of Rouse’s stories, about the potential for abuse of impotencedrugs, would not have raised smiles at Pfizer.
It is quite true, as Rouse says, that such trips can provide access toinformation and contacts which is not always available to busy
journalists. She also says she has become more cynical about thepharmaceutical industry and its relationships with doctors as a result ofinsights gained on such trips.
Nonetheless, the relationships built between the sponsor and sponsoredon such trips can be influential. Hickman notes that she felt obliged toattend a Pfizer press conference in Paris out of politeness.
Pfizer says it took journalists to the conference to encourage coverageof erectile dysfunction as a serious medical condition. The journalistssay Pfizer folk made the most of opportunities to put their case forViagra’s listing on the PBS.
What this tripdoes have in common with the Laws debacle (and with theperks so often provided to doctors) is the importance of declaringconflicts of interest. Rouse acknowledged Pfizer’s funding at the bottomof her stories but this was removed by the outlets which ran them.
Readers of The Courier Mail (Brisbane), The Herald Sun (Melbourne)and The Examiner (Launceston) would not have known of it.
Declarations ran at the bottom of the Taor and Pemble stories. Hickmanput one at the end of a feature about Viagra funding but forgot - in therush of filing stories in the middle of the Parisian night - to put it at thebottom of a news story predicting huge increases in impotence rates.
None of this is intended as having a go at these journalists in particular.
It has become, for better or worse, accepted practice within the media toaccept such junkets, and I’ve had my share. In previous incarnations(when working at AAP and the Sydney Morning Herald), I have travelledto Sweden and Denmark courtesy of Astra Pharmaceuticals and toBerlin courtesy of Roche. Each time I felt some discomfort about thearrangement - but not enough to knock the offer back.
The invitations seem to have dried up since I began writing articles likethis.
Which is perhaps the point. Companies would not splash money onjournalists unless they saw some value for themselves in such aninvestment. Just like they wouldn’t spend small fortunes wining anddining doctors - or sending them to conferences in exotic spots - if theydidn’t expect some return.
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