Fifth Annual Press Audit: Safety in the Spotlight

Mar 01, 2009

Running the Numbers on Newspapers
There may be fewer articles about the pharma industry these days—but the stories that do run are increasingly negative and one-sided. What's more, according to the results of the Fifth Annual Press Audit of issues in the pharmaceutical industry, while media coverage of pharma's marketing, sales, and other promotional practices has ebbed, it's been replaced with an almost laser-like focus on drug safety.

This annual audit, sponsored by the Arrupe Center for Business Ethics at St. Joseph's University, tracks and analyzes how the media covers industry issues. Each year, the audit identifies the "hot button" issues attracting media attention, compares how these issues are now covered in previous years, and reports on the pharmaceutical companies and brands most often cited in the news. This year, for the first time, we've turned the tables to focus on how each newspaper in the study presented the industry.

Top findings for 2008 include:

  • Coverage is down 45 percent when compared to 2006 and 2007.
  • The press coverage the industry receives is more negative than ever, with only 12 percent of articles deemed "positive" for pharma. The New York Times was the most negative toward the industry, followed by USA Today and The Washington Post.
  • Drug safety continues to be the hot button issue, with the number of articles at a five-year high.
  • Merck and its brands attracted the most media attention of any pharmaceutical company.

Processing the News

Hot Button Issues
The Fifth Annual Press Audit analyzed content from the top five US newspapers (as defined by total circulation) for the 12-month period ending October 1, 2008, and identified all front page and editorial articles pertaining to hot-button pharma issues. The newspapers were USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. We focused on daily newspapers rather than broadcast media or weekly magazines because of newspapers' ability to cover a broader range of issues with more depth than the sound bites reported on radio and TV. Business and news magazines are constrained by their weekly or monthly formats. The purpose of the audit was to shed light on the following questions:
  • What ethical and legal controversies face the pharma industry—and what kinds of coverage do they attract?
  • Do the articles and headlines support or oppose the positions taken by the industry, as defined by PhRMA (the Pharmaceutical Research Manufacturers Association)?
  • How often do reporters include the industry's perspective in stories that cover the issues of the day?
  • What pharmaceutical companies and brands are identified and discussed in the articles?
  • How do the newspapers compare to each other in the stance each tends to take toward the industry?
  • What does all this coverage mean for the pharmaceutical industry?

For each article, we examined four elements:

Issues We identified and categorized the hot button issues (as defined by PhRMA) that were discussed in each article. Many articles covered two or more issues that were included in relevant sections.

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