Pharm Exec's Seventh Annual Media Audit

Mar 01, 2011

Public reputation has become a key strategic indicator for Big Pharma—and the media plays a subtle but critical role in fixing the criteria by which the industry finds itself evaluated. To set some basic metrics for progress in the biopharmaceutical industry's relationship with the US press, Pharm Exec has for the past seven years commissioned the Arrupe Center for Business Ethics at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia to conduct an audit of the hot-button biopharma issues covered in the five biggest circulating US dailies (USA Today, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post; see chart) as well as overall attitudes toward the industry and individual companies.

This year's report finds a strong upswing in coverage, with the "top story" being flu vaccines, followed closely by the FDA regarding regulatory issues, and then drug safety. Conversely, interest in drug pricing is down, while the progress of health reform contained less information on industry positioning than was the case last year.

What Are the Hot Button Issues?

At the top of the list of issues attracting media attention in 2010, for the first time ever, were flu vaccinations. The media's coverage of this issue is telling, as it shifted from alarming reports of vaccine shortages, to the relatively mild strain of the virus, to an oversupply by the end of the year. At the beginning of the cycle, the Los Angeles Times reported a shortage of H1N1 vaccines due to delays and difficulties in production as well as the lack of production within the US. By the end of the review year, the story was the abundant supply of flu vaccines, many of which would go to waste.

Most Reported Issues in 2010
Scrutiny and criticism of the FDA and regulatory issues placed second on the list. This issue has ranked first or second for four consecutive years. Next up was the related issue of drug safety. Taken together, these two issues reveal the continuing media scrutiny on the drug approval process, cases of misuse or abuse of prescription drugs, adverse impact, and lawsuits. Most of those articles were critical of the industry and/or a specific pharma company or brand.

The focus on high drug prices declined in 2010, dropping from third to sixth on the list. Furthermore, two related pricing issues—importation/reimportation of drugs and differential pricing and distribution—did not appear on the list at all. This is an interesting finding in light of reports evidencing drug price increases last year averaging about 9 percent.

Healthcare reform emerged again as a hot issue in 2010. Healthcare reform articles were separated into two populations: one that specifically referred to the response of drug makers to reform (10 articles) and the other that focused more generally on the healthcare reform movement and debate over its provisions (74 articles). In the latter case, status of drug benefits under Medicare and Medicaid got the most attention.

Bias in Coverage?

Bias Analysis of Headlines and Full-Text Articles
A consistent finding throughout the seven-year study is that articles and headlines tend to be more negative than positive for the industry. The good news for 2010, however, is that the proportion of both negative headlines and negative articles declined significantly from previous years. Nevertheless, as shown in the tables, articles and headlines are still about twice as likely to be negative than positive toward the industry.

Positive coverage went down in The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post, while it went up in the Los Angeles Times from zero in 2009 to 22.2 percent in 2010. The articles were also analyzed to determine whether they included the industry's perspective no matter what position taken by the articles' authors. Less than half of the articles in 2010 (34 of 74, or 45.9 percent) included the industry's perspective. This is a substantial decrease from 2009, where 81.3 percent of the articles (13 of 16) mentioned both sides.

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