NPC Archive Item: News articles may not report drug research in an unbiased manner

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Hochman M, et al. News media coverage of medication research. Reporting pharmaceutical company funding and use of generic medication names. JAMA 2008;300:1544–50

16th October 2008

News articles reporting drug research often fail to report pharmaceutical funding and frequently describe medications only by their brand names.

Health professionals should be aware of the lack of controls within news agencies for prevention of bias in the reporting of drug research. Prescribing decisions should be based on information from trusted, independent sources, such as NICE, CKS, BMJ Clinical Evidence, Cochrane and MeReC, who have procedures in place to ensure that the information and advice they provide is unbiased and evidence-based.

What is the background to this?
The news media are an important source of information about medical research for patients and clinicians. Ideally, editorial systems should be in place to report the study results in an unbiased manner. In the study reported here, Hochman and colleagues surveyed the extent to which this was the case in news agencies in the USA, and evaluated two markers of biased reporting — the failure to report the funding source of drug studies, and the reporting of medications only by their brand names.

What does this study claim?
News articles reporting on medication studies often failed to report pharmaceutical company funding and frequently referred to medications by their brand names despite newspaper editors’ contention that this was not the case.

So what?
This study demonstrates how news media articles cannot be relied upon to provide information in an unbiased manner, and should not be used as a means of informing treatment decisions.

This study is limited by being solely USA based. The extent of this practice in other countries, including the UK is not known, although the authors cite one Canadian study that also demonstrated how newspaper stories frequently failed to report funding sources.

Study details
The authors reviewed 306 US news articles from newspaper and online sources about all pharmaceutical company-funded medication studies published in the five most prominent general medical journals from April 1, 2004 to April 30, 2008. They also surveyed editors at the 100 most widely circulated newspapers in the USA about their policies for the reporting of such studies.

Results: 42% (95%CI 37% to 48%) of articles did not report that the research had received company funding. Where drugs had generic and brand names, 67% (95%CI 61% to 73%) of reports referred to the drug by the brand name at least half of the time. 88% (95% CI 80% to 94%) of editors of newspapers reported that they always or often indicated when studies had received company funding and 77% (95% CI 67% to 85%) reported that they always or often referred to medications by their generic name. However, few newspapers had written policies regarding these issues (3% [95%CI 1% to 9%] and 2% [95%CI 1 to 8%], respectively).

The study was funded by the Department of Medicine at the Cambridge Health Alliance, Cambridge, USA

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