US news network reports of pharmaceutical-related stories routinely fail to name or credit the companies which produce the medicines involved, and take the availability and accessibility of prescription drugs for granted, according to a survey conducted by the Business and Media Institute (BMI), a free-market advocacy group.

The reporting also tends to be biased towards controversy and sensationalism, with medicines described as either a “miracle drug” or a “killer,” it says. The survey looked at 132 stories concerning prescription or over-the-counter drugs appearing on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts during January 1-September 30, 2006. Among its findings were that that:

– while the news reports covered everything from medical “controversies” to “breakthroughs,” nearly 80% excluded the viewpoint of the pharmaceutical industry, failing to include either a company statement or spokesperson;

– the coverage mentioned costs to consumers or drug company revenues 11 times more often than they mentioned drug development costs;

– only 22% of the stories even named the company that developed the medicines featured in the story; and

– just 2% dealt with the cost of developing drugs.

Moreover, 80% of the stories on the evening newscasts left out the perspective of the pharmaceutical industry entirely. The attitude becomes one of “who the hell cares who made it?” said BMI adviser Elizabeth Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and Health. Pharmaceuticals are becoming more and more like an entitlement, and the media strongly reflects that view, questioning the appropriateness of drug companies making a profit from products that help people, she said.

To improve coverage, the BMI recommending that the networks should:

– at least reference the company name in stories focusing on the promise of pharmaceutical breakthroughs and, where possible, include a company representative;

– stop portraying drugs as either “a perfect cure” or “a dangerous killer.” Journalists should seek to relay the pros and cons of a given drug in each story and make more mention of the fact that all treatments come with both benefits and risks;

– take care, when reporting on the costs of drugs, not just mention the cost of drugs to the consumer but also report the costs borne by companies in researching and developing them; and

– include more representatives from pharmaceutical companies when reporting on drug and medical stories.

Negative news on clinical trials “discourage volunteers”

Meantime, another US study has suggested that newspaper stories concerning clinical trials are overwhelmingly negative, and warns that this may be dissuading people to take part in trials.

The study analysed the content of newspaper stories in The New York Times and The Washington Post during May 2002-June 2003. During that time, they found 216 stories that mentioned clinical trials in The Times and 124 in The Post. 34% of the articles were negative in tone and 29% were positive, with stories appearing on the front page being 77% negative, although those on inside pages were more balanced in tone.

Topics reported included the cessation of 27 gene therapy studies after the death of a child in France, the discovery of genetic links to breast cancer and the dangers of hormone replacement therapy. The researchers then conducted a telephone survey, which revealed that national newspaper exposure was negatively associated with people’s intention to participate in clinical trials.

Discussing these findings, lead researcher Maria Len-Rios of the University of Missouri School of Journalism suggested that reporters might be able to counterbalance these negative effects by including information about how clinical trial research as a whole has led to lifesaving therapies. Medical and industry professionals also may need to work harder to inform reporters about the positive developments in their clinical research, she said, and added: “it’s important to put a clinical trial or a result in context so that readers understand the broad picture.” By Lynne Taylor