Monday, November 8, 2010

Reporters, Pharma-Sponsored Seminars: Keep the Brick in the Wall

From the should-we-create-another-shade-of-gray department: Are journalists who attend seminars underwritten by corporate sponsors still objective?

Some journalists say yes, some say no. What do we think? We think a good friend, a first-rate journalist, hit it on the head: If it’s a trade association, then that would be okay. Why? It’s an amorphous group, she says. You know what you’re getting, you know what the agenda is. If it’s a sole company, “you don’t know what they have in mind.”

The sole company that’s raised the stink in the blogosphere is Pfizer.

Here’s the background. The National Press Foundation offered a four-day seminar to a small group of journalists to learn about covering cancer. It’s the second year that the seminar’s been offered. Pfizer, one of NPF’s sponsors, underwrote the seminar both years. According to the NPF’s Web site, the foundation’s mission is to educate journalists about complex issues. It has numerous corporate sponsors, including Toyota, Gannett, Allstate, Merck and Pfizer – the latter donating $100,000 plus. (Prudential Financial, another sponsor, underwrote a seminar on retirement, but we were hard-pressed to find any media stink about that seminar.)

Politics Daily argued the ethical dilemma that such a connection creates; the NPF, on the other hand, argued that newsrooms are stretched for cash so that training journalists in these difficult topics isn’t taking place. NPF controls the agenda, it said, so it is confident that church and state, so to speak, are kept in their respective corners.

We can appreciate what the NPF is doing. A conscientious journalist who doesn’t have a solid background in writing about cancer will be frustrated in dealing with this topic. And attending pharma-underwritten seminars is one way to become educated.We just think it is importance that independence of educational content be refereed by NPF. 

This operating principal helps NPF and journalists feel confident the "firewall" is trustworthy. Maybe we’re na├»ve, but it seems we are very concerned these days with assuming people/situations are guilty until proven innocent.

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