Irresponsible reporting of clinical trials by the news media

It is important for journalists to highlight any potential bias in medical research so that patients and physicians alike can judge how valid clinical trial findings are. Today the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study showing that almost half of news stories on clinical trials fail to report the funding source of the trial. In addition, two-thirds of news articles refer to study medications by their brand names instead of by their generic names.

The authors Hochman et al. reviewed papers published between 1st April 2004 and 30th April 2008 in the top five medical journals (New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, the Lancet, Annals of Internal Medicine and Archives of Internal Medicine) to find pharmaceutical-company-funded studies that evaluated the efficacy or safety of medications. They then searched 45 major US newspapers (for example New York Times and USA Today) and 7 US-based primary news websites (including ABC News, CNN and MSNBC) for news stories that reported these clinical trials.

A total of 358 company-funded clinical trials were identified, and 117 of these yielded 306 distinct news stories. Of the 306 news stories, 42% did not report the funding source of the clinical study. A total of 277 of these news articles were about medications that had both brand names and generic names, but 67% of stories used brand names in at least half of the references to the medication and 38% used only brand names.

By using a brand name in news articles instead of a generic name, journalists are inadvertently favouring one pharmaceutical company over another. For example, the cholesterol lowering drug atorvastatin (generic name) is manufactured by several different pharmaceutical companies who all give it a different brand name – Pfizer call it Lipitor, whereas Merck until recently marketed a version called Zocor. Drugs are often referred to by their brand name because these titles tend to be better known – you’ve probably heard of paracetamol but not of acetaminophen; fair enough, maybe, but this practice still represents biased reporting.

Hochman et al. also surveyed 94 newspaper editors to find out whether these individuals thought that their publication accurately reported clinical trials. Interestingly, 88% of editors stated that their newspaper often or always reported reported company funding in articles about medical research, and 77% said that their publication often or always referred to medications by their generic names.

It seems that news outlets think they are reporting funding sources in medical articles when actually they’re not. Academic journals have strict policies for disclosing funding and potential conflicts of interest, so why don’t newspapers follow suit?

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M. Hochman, S. Hochman, D. Bor, D. McCormick (2008). News Media Coverage of Medication Research: Reporting Pharmaceutical Company Funding and Use of Generic Medication Names JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 300 (13), 1544-1550 DOI: 10.1001/jama.300.13.1544

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