Bad idea for health news: The Atlantic sells podium to industry sponsors at Aspen festival

Bad idea for health news: The Atlantic sells podium to industry sponsors at Aspen festival

As pleased as I was to see smart people grappling with the problem of misleading health news last week at the Aspen Ideas Festival, I don’t think it’s accurate to suggest that “fake” stories are a major problem with health news today.

“Fake Health News Metastasizes” was the title of the Aspen session addressing this topic, and it was covered by The Atlantic with a story headlined ‘Of All the Categories of Fake News, Health News Is the Worst.”

The term “fake news,” as we’ve previously explained, suggests an intentional attempt to deceive. And as the The Atlantic piece eventually clarifies, it’s much more common to see “junk” health news that stems from inaccurate, incomplete, and imbalanced reporting by “real” news outlets rather than deliberately “fake” news.

But perhaps the larger problem with The Atlantic’s coverage is the lack of self-awareness it demonstrates. There’s no recognition that The Atlantic, co-sponsor of the Festival, is contributing to the very problem it highlights.

Pay-for-play speakers encourage one-sided, imbalanced health care messages

I’m not talking about The Atlantic’s health care journalism, which I generally find to be first rate. I’m talking about the hopelessly conflicted funding structure for the Spotlight Health portion of the Ideas Festival. It amounts to handing a giant megaphone, and an implied endorsement from The Atlantic, to some of America’s biggest corporate health care interests in exchange for bucket loads of cash.

That’s a recipe for generating more of the poor-quality health news that everybody is so concerned about.


Consider the session led by Dr. Bart Roep of City of Hope, a billion-dollar health care system in California, titled “A world without Type 1 diabetes.”

Join Dr. Bart Roep for his presentation “A World Without T1D” at 10:20am (Koch Building). #AspenIdeas #SpotlightHealth

— City of Hope (@cityofhope) June 24, 2017

City of Hope is one of the festival’s supporting underwriters and it’s no coincidence that they were well-represented at the podium.

City of Hope is also among the more aggressively misleading purveyors of dubious health information — for example touting stem cell transplants trialed in 21 Brazilian patients as a “cure” for type 1 diabetes in a recent news release headline. It’s only toward the bottom of that skewed PR document that we learn:

“Because stem cell transplants involve severe immunosuppression prior to transplantation, the procedure is risky and will unlikely become the first line of defense for T1D, Roep added.”

One hopes that Dr. Roep’s Spotlight Health presentation was more balanced than the news release that he contributed to, and that any stories stemming from the session are more circumspect than this CBS piece — arguably an example of “junk” health news — about a different City of Hope diabetes “cure” from a couple of years ago.

Is it any wonder journalism’s credibility is in question when we elevate sources who repeatedly mislead the public?

Here’s another City of Hope representative, Dr. Harlan Levine, on a panel discussion about the 80th anniversary of The National Cancer Institute — part of the “Moonshots” conference track.

City of Hope's Dr. Harlan Levine introduces a panel discussion marking the 80th anniversary of @theNCI. #SpotlightHealth #AspenIdeas

— City of Hope (@cityofhope) June 24, 2017

We’ve flagged several instances of City of Hope engaging in egregious miracle-mongering about cancer treatment — including a news release that hypes an experimental vaccine as a “miracle” based on the response of just one patient.

These PR messages led to news coverage that was fluffy, incomplete, and misleading — but which put a nice shine on City of Hope’s image as an innovator in cancer care.

There’s a similar pay-for-play dynamic in Spotlight Health sessions featuring speakers from Mount Sinai Health System, a “presenting level” sponsor.

According to a Mount Sinai news release, the health system’s CEO, Dr. Kenneth Davis, was scheduled to participate in four different sessions including one titled “What is the Future of Medicine and Healthcare?” I bet Dr. Davis’s vision of that future is quite different from that of many other experts who could’ve been asked to participate — but who didn’t have the bank accounts to afford a sponsorship.

At least six other Mount Sinai representatives were scheduled to speak at a variety of different sessions.

Executives from PhRMA, GlaxoSmithKline, and Mount Sinai spoke about “The New Era of Medicine” at Aspen.

One can go down the list of big-bucks sponsors — the pharmaceutical lobby, Merck, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer — and see that representatives from each organization are listed on the conference agenda as speakers and moderators.

These sponsorships are appropriately disclosed to conference attendees but the larger issue remains: Ideas get a lot more attention at this festival if they’re backed up by a hefty check made out to The Atlantic.

Who knows where The Atlantic set the ante but individuals pay $2000 for the privilege of hearing all of this. Two thousand bucks a head and you still need conflicted funding?

Handing over the podiums to the highest bidders guarantees preferential treatment for vested interests. And as we’ve seen time and again in our reviews, it’s often those vested interests that have the biggest incentive to spin a skewed narrative about health care.

Why we didn’t participate

Nobody has spent more time than we have over the past 11 years evaluating misleading, inaccurate, and — yes — even some fake health news. So I was surprised to see no mention of our project in The Atlantic’s coverage of this topic.

When I flagged the piece for our publisher, Gary Schwitzer, and told him I wanted to write about the issues it raised, I learned that we had, in fact, been invited to participate on the Aspen fake news panel. Gary had declined the invitation due to the conference’s pharma sponsorship.

Trips to Aspen, paid for by the drug industry, aren’t good for the credibility of journalism watchdogs, he said.

Nor, I might add, are they a good example for other journalists who might be wondering how to maintain the trust of an increasingly suspicious public.

We’ve written about a growing number of journalism organizations who, like The Atlantic, maintain cozy relationships with industry that blur the line between editorial and sponsorship. We’ve shown how those relationships can lead to bad information reaching the public under the guise of health care “news.”

It’s also fair to wonder what health care stories aren’t being told by news organizations fearful of upsetting the sponsors who they’d have to report on.

Our pledge at — no industry sponsorship — means we’ll never have to face that dilemma.

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