July 14

World Conference Science Journalists

I have just returned from a trip to London at the invitation of the World Conference of Science Journalists which this year numbered 950 science writers, journalists and communicators who gathered over three days at London’s Westminster Central Hall for debate, discussions, even diatribes about the future of science journalism.
See WCSJ program and list of speakers :

It was funded by Welcome Trust. The producers who selected the panel were journalists, Colin Maclwain and Becky McCall. The title of the panel changed along the way from:
"The Pharmaceutical Industry Image Slump: Does this reflect reality or media coverage?"

to "A picture of health? Who shapes public opinion on pharma?"

The moderator, Clive Cookson, is Science Editor, Financial Times, who took the position that the pharmaceutical industry has no image problem, citing a 2005 survey.
[However, a 2008 Kaiser Permanente Public Opinion Spotlight appears to contradict that view.]

Three other panelists were listed in the program:
John Ilman, Chair,  UK Medical Journalists Association;
Sarah Garner, Associate Director (R&D), National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE);
and Dr. Paul Stoffels, Chairman, Global Research & Development, Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson.

At the last minute, however, a fifth panelist was added: Crispin Slee, who is head of PR / media relations of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI).  

For those who may be interested, my slide presentation: "Separating Science from Promotion, Evidence from Propaganda" 

Best coverage of the conference was by NATURE reporters

Highlights included: journal embargoes during which Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, declared that embargoes were all "about power and control – my power to control you, turning journalists into agents of propaganda."

"Look at this story, don’t you want it? Your rival wants it!" "But you’ve sold your soul to publicity masquerading as science." 
Ultimately, getting rid of the embargo system would improve the quality of science journalism, he concluded, because it would force editors to employ reporters who actually knew what they were talking about, rather than simply being able to read and regurgitate a weekly press release at leisure.

Another controversial topic, Fraud "endemic to medical publication"

Below are two of the WCSJ reports in NATURE: Embargoes broken? and Scrutinizing Big Pharma

Posted by Vera Sharav


NATURE.com homepage
Embargoes broken?

Today a panel of speakers at the World Conference of Science Journalists (WCSJ) turned its attention to the embargo system. Are embargoes good for science journalists – and science – or not?

For the uninitiated, journals such as Nature and Science routinely give information to journalists about forthcoming academic publications before they are released to the wider world. The information is ‘under embargo’ until a set publication time – at which point newspapers, TV, newswires and the like are free to release their stories. Increasingly, academic institutions do the same sort of deals with the media, too.

The advantage for journalists is that it gives them more time to work on the story, talk to the researchers involved, and get the science right, argued panellist Geoff Watts, a BBC Radio 4 broadcaster.

It also reduces the chances that a poor science hack will miss a good story that their competitors cover, thus incurring the wrath of their news editor.

And it’s great for the journals too. By marshalling the coverage of their science papers, big journals can virtually guarantee that their brand is splashed all over the newspapers and the web at the same time every week. They’re happy; the journalists have an easier life, and arguably produce better stories; and the scientists involved can point to the coverage in their next grant application as evidence of the importance of and public interest in their work. Everyone’s a winner, right?

Wrong, says Vincent Kiernan, associate dean at Georgetown University, journalist, and journalism scholar.

Embargoes have become an addiction for journalists, he said, a set of "velvet handcuffs" that simply eats up time and resources that could be better spent digging up scoops. Not only does it turn journalists into propagandists for scientists and academic journals, it also reduces science to an artificial series of ‘eureka’ moments.

Indeed, there’s no evidence that stories written under embargo are any better than those which are not, he added. And in a time when media companies are struggling, the ones that will survive are those which provide unique content – not those who follow the pack and write the same stories about science that everyone else is writing.

He’s even written a book on the subject – Embargoed Science – and his advice to journalists is: "It’s time to walk away from the embargo. Just walk away."

So what does Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet – which operates a very strict embargo policy – think? "I’m Richard," he shouts, "I’m 47 and I’ve been addicted to embargoes for 14 years."

In a remarkable diatribe, delivered at top volume and with tongue only slightly in cheek, Horton explained that embargoes were all "about power and control – my power to control you, turning journalists into agents of propaganda."

Eyes abalaze, he continued, almost mocking the open-mouthed hacks in the audience: "Look at this story, don’t you want it? Your rival wants it!" he cried. "But you’ve sold your soul to publicity masquerading as science."

Ultimately, getting rid of the embargo system would improve the quality of science journalism, he concluded, because it would force editors to employ reporters who actually knew what they were talking about, rather than simply being able to read and regurgitate a weekly press release at leisure.

So, an audience member asked him, if you think embargoes are so damaging to decent journalism, why doesn’t The Lancet get rid of them: "Are you afraid of the journalists?"

"No, I’m afraid of Tony [Kirby, The Lancet’s chief Rottweiler – er, press officer – and a former colleague of mine]," Horton replied. Despite the fact that the embargo system repels Horton, the reality is that his colleagues tell him it’s good for business, he explained.

But Horton has a plan. To test the hypothesis that embargoed journal papers get more, and better-quality, coverage in the popular press, he suggested that all the papers published by The Lancet over, say, a month or two, could be divided into two randomized groups. One set would be press released under embargo; the other merely published by the journal at the usual time.

The audience giggled uncertainly. But talking to Horton after the event, I challenged him to follow through with the plan. After all, it could turn into a fascinating experiment. He promised to discuss it with Tony – so let’s see what happens.

Posted by Mark Peplow at 09:35 PM | Permalink | Comments (5)

Scrutinising big pharma

Here I am at the WCSJ (haven’t worked out how to say that as a word yet) in the midst of a scorching warm spell in London.

One of this morning’s sessions tackled the thorny, often emotive issue of "big pharma" and whether the media is used merely as an extension of a PR machine for the industry. Feelings ran high in the room, with a wide sweep of panelists. These included Paul Stoffels, head of global pharmaceutical research and development for Johnson & Johnson, and at the other end of the scale Vera Hassner Sharav, founder and president of the alliance for human research protection, a public interest watchdog that wants to stop biomedical research results remaining secret. Between them were John Ilman, a pharma journalist, Sarah Garner from NICE, the UKs drug regulator, and Cripsin Slee, head of PR for the ABPI.

Feelings ran high, and Stoffel gave a good overview of why he believes in the pharmaceutical industry, recounting his years of experience as a physician in AIDS and HIV-ridden Africa in the 1980s and 1990s. He admitted that there is a tension for pharma companies between making money and being a healthcare provider, yet this is what public companies must learn to balance.

Vera Sharav, on the other hand, gave another empassioned presentation, included slide after slide of information telling us how evil pharmaceuticals companies are.

But it struck me, thanks to a question from the floor, that the involvement of science, and scientists, in the debate about whether pharma companies ruthlessly push un-needed, dangerous drugs on the populus or not, is vastly overlooked. The role of the media should not only be about exposing bad practice after the event, but should be in reporting the scientific advances, and yes reporting who is paying for what. The perception of the pharma industry remains poor, and the importance of the science going on behind closed doors often brushed over.

Of course, another problem is in getting hold of that information, and gettting access to scientists who work in industry to comment on stories, both general and specific. If pharma copmanies want to embrace transparency, for this science journalist at least, that should include allowing me to talk to the world experts on certain diseases and drugs, which often reside inside the "Bunker" that Crispin Slee eloquently put it in the discussion.

Posted by Katharine Sanderson on July 2, 2009 03:13 PM

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