Drug companies have been promoting their views on the nation’s op-ed pages via commentary writers who come across as neutral-sounding experts, and editors don’t always call out these industry mouthpieces for what they are.
Pharma-friendly guest columns have appeared on editorial pages around the country without disclosure of the authors’ drug industry ties, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Austin American-Statesman, and USA TODAY Network, HealthNewsReview.org found.
Last month STAT News retracted a commentary praising drug industry sales reps after the physician whose byline it contained was found to be on the pharma payroll. The physician, a board member of the industry-funded Alliance for Patient Access (AfPA), also admitted to HealthNewsReview.org that it was ghostwritten. Another commentary in STAT, which praised drug ads, was written by a patient who said a PR firm employed by a drug company helped her write it.
But while STAT has taken a lot of heat for the lack of transparency, it’s clear other publications aren’t informing readers about conflicts of interest on their op-ed pages.
We found a dozen examples with some connection to the little-known AfPA, which HealthNewsReview.org recently profiled in detail. A writer’s affiliation was sometimes disclosed, but with no mention of the organization’s financial backing. In some cases, physician writers had personally accepted pharmaceutical money that was not disclosed.
This is a sharp contrast to transparency standards for news reporting. Edward Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, goes so far as to describe op-ed pages as “ethical bordellos,” where editors in need of content are sometimes complicit in concealing the connections between a writer and the subject of a column.
“The kinds of disclosures that would be routine in news coverage — by which I mean when you’re quoting somebody, if that person has a connection to the subject that isn’t clear from the context in the story then you need to disclose it to your readers — those standards have rarely been applied to op-ed contributors,” Wasserman said.
Not everyone’s assessment is as harsh. “I think there’s a bit of naivete on the part of editors,” said Sharon Batt, author of the book “Health Advocacy, Inc.” She noted heightened skepticism among some journalists that’s led to more critical reporting of pharma-funded advocacy groups in recent years, while op-ed editors in the same newsrooms don’t seem to be asking questions about where advocacy groups get their money.
Just this year:
Efforts to find out how these commentaries ran without mention of the drug industry ties of their authors met with limited success.
Gannett spokeswoman Chrissy Terrell emailed this response: “Our Network newsrooms follow ethical principles, which are posted on the home page of our websites.” She provided a link to their guidelines, which call for opinion pieces to adhere to “the same standards of accuracy as news stories” but don’t require opinion writers to meet transparency standards, as Gannett journalists do.
Terrell added: “The original version of the opinion piece left out information, which may have confused some readers, and The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press staff addressed (this) by including more in the tag line.”
American-Statesman Editor Debbie Hiott thanked us for asking about her paper’s disclosure policies, but she didn’t give details about the paper’s process. Hiott said in an email: “We do have an expectation that writers divulge conflict of interest. We’ll go back and review this case and our procedures to make sure we are handling it as we should, and I look forward to seeing the suggestions in your article.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial page editor, Harold Jackson, indicated it’s up to readers to discern potential conflicts. He wrote in an email:
“Our policy in publishing commentary by outside sources is to identify the organization the person represents in expressing an opinion and, with that person’s permission, publish his email address so readers may directly contact the writer with any questions or observations they may have. We believe that provides readers with enough information to do their own research about the writer’s affiliations. If there are occasions when we believe more information should be published, we do our best to provide it.”
Sandra Shea, managing editor in charge of opinion for the Philadelphia Media Network, which owns the Inquirer, added:
“These are opinion [emphasis by Shea] pages. We assume that readers are intelligent enough to understand that opinion writers may have agendas. They are not news stories, and are by nature subjective. The expectation that we would report on sources of funding for an organization or individual submitting an opinion is not realistic, and I can’t imagine any publication would contemplate such a policy.”
But is it realistic to expect every reader to contact the writer to inquire about potential conflicts? And while identifying a writer’s affiliation might be adequate if it’s a well-known group, such as Blue Cross Blue Shield or the American Hospital Association, most readers wouldn’t be familiar with the AfPA or the GHLF. Shouldn’t editors offer some information about little-known groups to help readers evaluate arguments they put forth?
Charles Seife, a journalism professor at New York University who’s sued the FDA to obtain information about the approval process for Exondys 51, the drug cited in the Inquirer column, said it boils down to whether a typical reader would be deceived.
“I think it’s deceptive to portray a PR guy paid by pharma to do their bidding as some kind of patient advocate, so yes, I think the description at the end of the (Inquirer) piece is inadequate,” he wrote. “It would have been nice had the Inky caught the issue with just a bit of background research — simply wondering ‘who are these guys?’ would have helped. But, frankly, it’s not easy to make a hard distinction between outright front groups and industry-backed fellow-travelers and think tanks — and what difference it should make if one could make that distinction.”
Some publications do ask writers to divulge their ties. In the past at least, the New York Times has required op-ed writers to sign an agreement to disclose financial interests in the topic they’re writing about to Times editors.
USA Today includes this sentence in its commentary submissions guidelines: “If you or a business, trade group or other institution with which you are associated stands to gain financially or in any other way from your column, you should disclose that information to us in detail. In most cases, it should also be included in the body of the piece or in the author’s biographical information.”
The Washington Post asks that op-ed writers “disclose any personal or financial interest in the subject at hand.”
“It’s important to disclose anything that may amount to a conflict of interest,” Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan said in an email. “This can be done by describing affiliation in an identification line or in any editor’s note. The more that readers can understand about where a writer is coming from, the better.”
Unfortunately, there’s not always an incentive for editors to probe. Commentaries by outside writers constitute free content and fulfill the mission of providing diverse voices. With media organizations cutting editorial staffs, special-interest groups are happy to step in and fill the content void. “If the publication isn’t paying, then somebody is,” Wasserman noted. He said newspaper opinion sections “have always been the recipient of largesse subsidized by undisclosed sources.”
Internet searches and a perusal of the AfPA web site turned up 12 op-eds with AfPA connections published since 2011. None disclosed drug industry ties. HealthNewsReview.org did not search for op-eds connected to other pharma-backed groups. Among those we found:
Editors might believe the op-ed label relieves them of responsibility. “They can post (submissions) with very little scrutiny as an op-ed,” said Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, a corporate watchdog group. “It’s happened with a lot of papers. It’s a nod to the blog world.”
Op-ed opacity isn’t a new issue. In 2011, a corporate watchdog focused on energy policy, the Checks and Balances Project, campaigned to increase transparency on the Times op-ed page, citing a Times op-ed by Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at Manhattan Institute, which didn’t mention of the institute’s ties to the petroleum industry.
“We see The New York Times as the standard bearer of journalism, the nation’s paper of record,” Gabe Elsner, leader of the project, told the Columbia Journalism Review. “We think that they can set the standard and everyone else would likely follow. It’s a common sense practice that if there are people putting out opinions, readers should know who they are and where they’re coming from.”
Of course, not everyone agrees what constitutes adequate disclosure, and standards may be different in print due to space and technical constraints.
Former Times’ public editor Arthur Brisbane — whose old position incidentally was eliminated this year — grappled with that issue in a 2011 column, suggesting print editions include a writer’s current paid role while web versions include links to a writer’s organization and a document listing current paid positions.
Brisbane concluded: “These steps aren’t as simple as perhaps they sound, and, even if done well, some readers will ask for more.”
It seems clear more scrutiny is needed at a time when op-ed pages are being used as covert PR tools. “This is an instance where the editor needs to be the proxy for the reader, which really is the editor’s job,” Wasserman said. “If the editors aren’t doing that, then the reader is really up a creek.”