Media Audit: Stop the Presses!

The media are becoming more negative and onesided when it comes to reporting industry news.
Apr 01, 2007

A Count of Pharma's Clips
No pharma exec can last long at the top without developing a thick skin about the media's harsh glare. Big Pharma (read: "Evil Pharma Empire") has emerged as one of the industries the public, the polls, and the press love to hate—and not always without cause. Still, most industry members agree that when it comes to the pharma beat, reporters too often check their fairness and accuracy at the door. • The third-annual media audit by the Arrupe Center for Business Ethics at Saint Joseph's University confirms these suspicions: While the amount of coverage remained constant in 2006, the content was more negative and one-sided than ever. As in the previous two studies, we ID the hot-button issues attracting media attention over the past year, evaluate spin and slant, and then compare how the issues and agendas compare to previous years.

Here are the three top findings of 2006:

  • Drug safety remained the most-inked issue, but there was also a new focus on generics as well as on marketing and sales.
  • Headlines became more sensational, with more negative and fewer neutral.
  • Unlike in the previous two years, the industry, at least as represented by PhRMA, appears to be more in touch with the issues of concern to the press and the public.

Grading the Press

The audit analyzed content from the top-five US newspapers by circulation—USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post. The purpose was to shed light on the following questions:
  • Which controversies face the pharma industry—and what kind of coverage do they get?
  • Do the articles support or oppose the positions taken by the industry, as defined by PhRMA?
  • How often do reporters include the industry's perspective in their stories ?
  • How do PhRMA's high-priority issues compare to those covered by top newspapers?
  • What does it all mean for pharma?

To be included in the study, an article had to be published between October 1, 2005 and September 30, 2006. It also had to (a) focus on an ethical or legal issue facing the industry and (b) run either as a front-page story or on the editorial page—an indication of major news and public interest. We then compared the results to those in 2004 and 2005. (For a breakdown by paper, see "A Count of Pharma's Clips".)

Keep on Spinning
We focused on daily newspapers rather than the broadcast media or weekly magazines for a number of reasons. Dailies can cover a broader range of issues and in more depth than radio and TV. Business and news magazines are also constrained by their weekly or monthly formats. Furthermore, it is critical to evaluate the top newspapers' editorial pages, which frequently take strong positions—pro or con—toward controversies and exert considerable influence.

Of the articles selected for the study, we examined four factors:

1. Issues We identified the issues discussed in each article relating to pharma. Of the 270 articles on the front or editorial pages, 108 covered two or more issues and were included in relevant sections.

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