Quick Hit: Follow the Money

Please go check out Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer’s Slate article on conflicts of interest among medical “experts” appearing all over the damn media–up to and including public radio. Then go reread point 10 here.

I’m gonna quote liberally, ’cause there’s just too much here to narrow it down.

How frequently are journalists glossing over such conflicts? Gary Schwitzer, a professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota, is the publisher of HealthNewsReview.org, a Web site that reviews health care news for balance, accuracy, and completeness. Schwitzer and his team of reviewers have looked at 544 stories from top outlets over the two-year period from April 2006 to April 2008. Journalists had to meet several criteria in order to receive a satisfactory score, among them: They had to quote an independent expert—someone not involved in the relevant research—and they had to make some attempt to report potential conflicts of interest. Half the stories failed to meet these two requirements, Schwitzer says.

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.

An equally clever way for companies to get out their marketing messages is to go through a consumer group. Drug companies often seed “pharm teams,” consumer groups that start out as legitimate advocacy organizations and are subtly manipulated by funding from pharmaceutical companies to convey the desired talking points. Unless reporters ask where groups and individual researchers get their money, they have no idea that their sources may be biased—and neither do their readers, viewers, and listeners.

Emphasis mine.

Posted in Fat

23 thoughts on “Quick Hit: Follow the Money

  1. Wow, just when you think it can’t get any more insidious…

    I work in advertising, and even I’m kind of surprised by how bad it is, especially with regard to the consumer groups.

  2. You know what? When it comes to science journalism, I just expect complete crap, now – a regurgitation of the press release, and a frenzied rush to misinterpret and spin the results in the way that most reinforces dominant-group prejudices.

    I’d settle for one small improvement: actual referencing of the main article being discussed, with a minimum of first-author’s surname, article title, and journal. Right now it’s almost always a pain in the arse trying to track down the actual papers in the first place to check for myself what the authors really said (and their conflicts of interest, etc.)

  3. I realize this is upsetting, but honestly, is this new information? I’ve long ago stopped assuming anyone actually cared for the people they’re pumping drugs into in favor of the money they receive from the companies producing and distributing these drugs.

  4. Shocking. Just shocking.

    No, wait, “follow the money” has always been sound practice in any investigation.

    How is this news? Who, exactly, thought we were living in the perfect society that didn’t have this problem? Why, oh why, is Slate reporting this like no one could possibly had any idea that it was happening?

    Is it because what “everyone knows” is almost invariably wrong?

  5. honestly, is this new information?

    Around here, no. But I think y’all might be overestimating most people’s understanding of how journalism and/or science work.

  6. I’m with Kate. Most people assume that if it says it was a scientific study, then it’s correct and that most journalists (at least the ones they read) are both correct and unbiased.

    Just because we know better doesn’t mean most of the world has caught up.

  7. I had three different people bring that NPR story up to me so I couldn’t forward that Slate article fast enough. Nice to have specific info at hand right away, with someone else having done the digging.

    Did anyone check out the link to Schwitzer’s website?

  8. Hell, too many people are perfectly willing to believe anything they get in a stupid email forward. The rest of the world has definitely not caught up!

  9. I’d settle for one small improvement: actual referencing of the main article being discussed, with a minimum of first-author’s surname, article title, and journal. Right now it’s almost always a pain in the arse trying to track down the actual papers in the first place to check for myself what the authors really said (and their conflicts of interest, etc.)

    Part of the problem is that the press releases often come out before the article is published, which means the articles often aren’t available to the journalists at the time.

    Granted, that *should* mean that journalists could hold off and wait to see the actual entire article before writing big articles about it, but then they miss the news cycle for it.

  10. Are you telling me tampons DON’T contain asbestos, killedbyllamas?

    There’s a “surprise me cunt” joke in here somewhere, I know it.

  11. Wait, tampons contain asbestos? Seriously? I’m on Day 1 of my period. Should I stop by the local health store for the super expensive, all natural cotton tampons?

  12. Are you telling me tampons DON’T contain asbestos, killedbyllamas?

    There’s a “surprise me cunt” joke in here somewhere, I know it.
    Absolutely.

  13. Whew! Thanks, Phledge. The claim of asbestos and the refutation of the claim were entirely new to me. Now, I can save the money I would have spent on all-natural tampons and spend it on wine. I love wine.

  14. Asbestos? Really?

    People will believe damn near anything with a PhD attached to it. Except evolution.

  15. There is reliable, critical science and medical journalism happening — I’ve been seeing a lot of it on the AP wire. I don’t know how much those stories are being selected, though.

    I’m an editor, and I dropped several columns in the last three years because I started checking their sources. I was really concerned how indie columnists were actually misreporting the findings of the studies – and making them sound conclusive.

    I don’t think science is ever conclusive. I think it seeks to explain things.

  16. Are you telling me tampons DON’T contain asbestos, killedbyllamas?
    There’s a “surprise me cunt” joke in here somewhere, I know it.
    Blah blah blah firecrotch joke in here somewhere blah blah blah…

  17. I don’t think science is ever conclusive. I think it seeks to explain things.

    I had a favorite high school physics teacher who liked to say something to the effect of “science ain’t about the answers so much as the questions. If you got all the answers, there’d be no science.” And one of my favorite unattributed quotes is “Questions without answers are far less dangerous than answers without questions.”

  18. And this certainly does touch upon some studies about overweightness that prop up societal prejudices. If it were possible to take large amounts of fat-weight off and keep it off, I really think the majority of us here reading this blog would have done it and would continue doing it. You would think that our family and neighbors and cow-irkers should be willing to take our word for it that lost weight from dieting simply doesn’t stay lost, and that loss stops even happening after a certain point.

    But no, we “didn’t try hard enough”. So how much is enough? When we’re spending all our own time exercising and eating 1500-calorie-a-day diets that allow only 60 grams of fat a day and being Biafra-baby hungry all day long as a result? I know there are people who can live on that little, and good for them because their grocery bills must be pretty low, but really, those people are a minority.

    900-1,000 calories-a-day with thirty grams of fat is considered a brink-of-starvation diet, to give you some perspective. I’m sure a lot of our Dude Nation trolls would say, “Then you should eat that diet, you fucking rhinos!” And these enlightened individuals would probably last about a week on the 1500-a-day diet, I tend to think!

    I took a look at the “Lean Cuisines” in the freezer at the grocery store a few days ago. The average package is about 250 calories with about four or five grams of fat. If people are actually eating those, I hope they are eating something else in addition to those hyper-skimpy portions.

  19. I don’t trust any expert opinion or studies unless I’ve see the counter arguments and the detail of the studies. Many reputable people have all kinds of reasons for taking the postion that they do and some are unconscious. Understanding where people get their money clarifies much about their position on an issue but doesn’t necessarily mean that they are wrong.

    Also many medical facts may apply to certain segment fo population and not to others. It behooves each and every one of us to test and see if procedures and medications are suitable for oneself. Rule of thumb is if it sounds counter intuitive and weird, do more research and be very very scared (skeptical).

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