Pressed Into Action: Measuring Pharma’s Reputation Reversal

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-03-01-2022, Volume 42, Issue 3

Study analyzes mainstream media coverage of the industry before and after the COVID-19 lockdown.

A Gallup poll on public trust from August 2019 ranked the pharmaceutical industry last of 25 sectors, its lowest ranking since Gallup initiated the poll in 2001. Has media coverage of big pharma changed in light of the successful and rapid development and deployment of COVID-19 vaccines? The results of a recent study we conducted, based on an analysis of newspaper articles comparing pre- and post-lockdown coverage, show that the amount of coverage and the tone of both headlines and articles have indeed shifted dramatically.

Media coverage of the pharmaceutical industry was analyzed over a two-year period centering on March 2020, the beginning of the pandemic lockdown, by auditing the top five US newspapers, based on circulation: The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. Front-page articles and editorials for the 12-month period leading up to March 2020 were compared to articles published during the 12 months after the lockdown. A total of 493 front-page articles and editorials over that two-year period were content analyzed to understand changes in the volume of coverage, the tone of the headlines and articles, and the hot-button issues that were the focus of the articles.

The number of articles in the five newspapers increased dramatically from the pre- to post-COVID lockdown periods, more than doubling from 143 articles to 350. Front-page articles increased over 160%, and editorials increased about 121%. This increase was driven in part by a focus on pharma’s role in countering the emergence of the COVID pandemic. Coverage in USA Today jumped from 15 articles on pharma during the year preceding the lockdown to 62 articles post-lockdown, while The Washington Post increased its coverage from 36 to 93 articles over the same two-year period.

Themes that were at the top of the list of hot-button issues reported on during the pre-lockdown period were themes that were consistently reported in Pharmaceutical Executive by Porth and Sillup since 2005, led by opioids (40%), high drug prices (27.3%), and interactions with FDA (21%). During the post-lockdown period, the news was dominated by reports focusing on COVID vaccine development and deployment (60%). The focus on the opioid crisis dropped post-lockdown even as the crisis worsened. Opioids dropped from first place on the hot-button list to eighth place (from 57 articles to 20). Similarly, high drug prices dropped from second to fourth place (39 articles to 25).

The tone of the articles was assessed as positive, negative, or neutral. Pre-lockdown, only The Wall Street Journal, known for its pro-business stance, had more favorable than unfavorable coverage of pharma (35% positive vs. 30% negative). The other four newspapers had more negative than positive coverage of pharma pre-lockdown. The study also shows a dramatic shift in the tone of coverage during the post-lockdown period. Post-lockdown, four of the five newspapers reported more positive than negative articles. Only the Los Angeles Times remained more negative than positive in year two of the study.

A similar trend was discovered in our analysis of headlines. Headlines during year one were almost four times more likely to be negative than positive toward the industry (36.5% negative vs. 9.8% positive). This flipped during year two, when headlines were more likely to be positive (26%) than negative (19.4%). (Note: Most headlines are neutral in tone either because the reader would not know that the headline applies to pharma or because the headline takes neither a decidedly positive nor negative stance toward the industry).

Overall, the study documents dramatic changes in media coverage of pharma coinciding with the industry’s response to the COVID pandemic.

The authors wish to thank Cynthia Slater, Saint Joseph’s University’s Business Reference Librarian, and 2021 Summer Scholars’ Program research assistants Lauren Stwalley, for analyzing articles, and Kerry Faust, for analyzing articles and running analyses using the EthicsTrak® Database.

George P. Sillup, PhD, and Stephen J. Porth, PhD, The Erivan K. Haub School of Business at Saint Joseph’s University