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Is STAT tone-deaf in accepting PhRMA sponsorship?

Is STAT tone-deaf in accepting PhRMA sponsorship?

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Maybe it’s just seeing this – again – on the day after the President signed the 21st Century Cures Act, which many smart observers have criticized as a Christmas gift to Pharma.  John Mack’s PharmaGuy newsletter captured some of that sentiment with this headline and image:



But STAT News, whose work deserves high praise, continues to accept sponsorship from PhRMA (the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America) in its morning email newsletter.  This is a screenshot of today’s:



I am sure that STAT allows no editorial influence by this or any other sponsor. Their hard-nosed coverage of pharmaceutical industry news is top notch. I just taped a half hour public radio interview yesterday in which I praised STAT’s editorial efforts.

But I do not praise their front office decision to accept this sponsorship deal. It startles me and bothers me every time I see that PhRMA logo on the STAT newsletter. And I think it could raise legitimate questions in discerning readers’ minds.  Journalism ethics dictates that one should strive at all costs to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. Was it necessary for STAT to enter into this sponsorship deal?  STAT just introduced a premium subscription plan.  I hope that works for them; maybe it will generate enough income so that they wouldn’t feel compelled to swim in the murky waters of the PhRMA sponsorship deal.

There are always options, including “Just say no.”

As highly as I think of STAT’s journalism, if it depends even in part on PhRMA sponsorship, I would rather see them ratchet back and decline such deals.

Certainly PhRMA is thrilled with STAT saying “Yes” –  allowing them to buy their way into regular appearances in the STAT newsletter. This is a foot in the door for an industry to buy juxtaposition to messages that often call their practices into question. It would be understandable if any reader’s head was spinning with thoughts of “What’s going on here?”

I urge others who are bothered by this policy to write to STAT or to leave comments on our site.

I acknowledge that there is a huge cost in producing high quality health/medical/science journalism.

But there is a much bigger cost in any dent in journalistic credibility or public trust.

Note:  This isn’t the first time we’ve mentioned this sponsorship deal.  Trudy Lieberman wrote in May, “Sponsored content gets even more slippery.”

Addendum 5 hours after original post:  When you do the kind of work that we’ve done for 10 years on this site, you grow accustomed to realizing that the stance you’ve taken may not sit well with journalists.  On Twitter today, reactions to this piece from journalists I respect have included:

“Money needs to come from somewhere.” (Me: “Yes, but not from the industry you report on every day.”)

“Doesn’t bother me a bit. Disclose and move on.” (Me: “If only it were that simple. Like take the money and run.”)

“They’re trying to run a business.  You’re scaremongering.”   (Me: “Scaremongering?  This is simply following the old journalistic creed of ‘follow the money.’ Or isn’t that OK to do when you follow the money that fuels news organizations?”)

However, lest you think that no one agreed with our stance, supportive comments on social media included those from editors of two medical journals, a former NIH whistleblower, a former medical center CEO, a leading patient advocate active on social media, health policy experts at Yale and UCSF,  and two bioethicists – perhaps pointing to a different form of digital divide.

From the Bible we learn, “Physician, heal thyself.”  Let me suggest, “Journalist, heal thyself.”

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Updated: December 15, 2016 — 3:30 am

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