Fifth Annual Press Audit: Safety in the Spotlight - Pharmaceutical Executive


Fifth Annual Press Audit: Safety in the Spotlight

Pharmaceutical Executive

Negative Coverage

The overall drop in coverage is good news for the industry, as media coverage tends to be negative toward pharma. This negative slant has been constant over the five years of the study, but is even more pronounced in 2008. Both headlines and articles became more negative, while the percentage of positive articles dropped from 29 percent to only 12 percent.

Much of this change can be attributed to highly publicized drug safety cases reported in 2008 ("Report: Data on Vioxx Misused; Documents Suggest Risk Was Downplayed," USA Today, April 16, 2008), along with the increased scrutiny of FDA ("FDA Says It Approved the Wrong Drug Plant; Heparin Probe Sends Inspectors to China," Washington Post, February 19, 2008). In addition, articles such as "Big Pharma Faces Grim Prognosis; Industry Fails to Find New Drugs to Replace Wonders Like Lipitor" (Wall Street Journal, December 6, 2007) and "Pharma's Queasy Feeling; Overdependence on 'Blockbuster' Drugs Is Taking a Toll on the Industry" (Los Angeles Times, January 27, 2008) contributed to the negative skew.

Which newspapers view the industry most negatively? For the first time, this year's audit examined this question by analyzing all 297 articles collected in the EthicsTrak database over the past two years. The results indicate that coverage in The New York Times is the most negative toward pharma by a significant margin, followed by USA Today and The Washington Post. The Wall Street Journal is most likely to publish a positive article about the industry.

Companies Under Watch
Regardless of whether the article takes a primarily positive or negative tone toward the positions of the industry, our audit analyzed whether both sides of the disputed issue were acknowledged. It's important to note that all the analyses of articles over the past two years that resulted in a "negative" assessment included both sides of the issue.

Inked Companies

Drug companies and/or their products were named 113 times in the study. Five companies accounted for 78 percent of those references. Merck led the way with 31 mentions in 2008, mostly due to residual issues linked to Vioxx ("Merck's Tactics Largely Vindicated as It Reaches Big Vioxx Settlement," Wall Street Journal, November 10, 2007). As the year progressed, Merck's overzealous marketing of their heart drug, Zocor (Washington Post, February 2, 2008), its $650 million Medicare settlement (Washington Post, February 8, 2008), and the clinical failure of its HIV vaccine (Washington Post, March 21, 2008) received coverage.

Other coverage of Big Pharma companies included:

  • Pfizer, which was a distant second with 19 mentions resulting from coverage of several issues led by the termination of Lipitor's spokesman, Dr. Jarvik, as well as questions about the performance and positioning of several of its drugs—Lyrica, for the treatment of fibromyalgia (New York Times, January 14, 2008); Chantix, for smoking cessation, restricted from use by pilots (USA Today, May 22, 2008); and the failure of the company's insulin clinical study (Wall Street Journal, October 19, 2007).
  • Schering-Plough was named 14 times, tied to concerns about the safety of their heart drug Zetia (coverage with Merck in USA Today, July 25, 2008), the failure of a cholesterol clinical trial (New York Times, January 16, 2008), and allegations about data suppression (USA Today, February 1, 2008).
  • Johnson & Johnson's coverage was largely based on safety concerns and its cold remedies for children (Los Angeles Times, October 12, 2007), but also included coverage about "behind the counter" use of its products (Los Angeles Times, October 5, 2007).
  • Baxter coverage focused almost exclusively on the problems related to the safety of heparin (Wall Street Journal, February 21, 2008).


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