The private sector as a system operating independently of the government and state can exert a significant influence on wavering journalism. In most instances, the media relies on support, especially financial support from external bodies like the private sector and other forms of philanthropic foundation support. Private sectors, like big pharma, are aware that they do not have the audience power, and neither can they amass influence over the public on their own. Thus they use the media as a tool of influence over the public.

Big pharma is known as one of the most powerful industries in the world. As the name implies, it refers to the global pharmaceutical industry and comprises the Pharmaceutical  Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) as well as the trade group.

However, some of these private sectors do not operate in the interest of their consumers. Since they are owned by private individuals or groups, they can decide to flout safety orders given by the government to achieve their financial goals. For example, Big pharma is not the country’s favorite. The industry is beserted with unending corruption which has caused concerns for many Americans. Public Citizen, a Consumer Advocacy Organization, has exposed big pharma for defrauding the federal government under the False Claims Act.

Despite that, the industry is recorded as the fourth-largest spender on TV ads in the U.S., with $6.6 billion spent on TV ads in the past year. Advertisement revenue can make most TV and Radio stations that benefit hugely from these commercials turn a blind eye to the dangers big pharma pose. Research shows that the industry is riddled with fraud, lawsuits, bribery, and scandals.

In 2019, Ranbaxy, the generic drug maker of Lipitor, a cholesterol treatment used by millions of patients in the U.S. was ordered to pay a fine of $500 million to “resolve claims that it sold subpar drugs and made false statements to the Food and Drug Administration about its manufacturing practices at two factories in India.” Investigative journalist, Katherine Eban covered in detail the fraudulent activities of this drug company in her book “bottle of lies”.

Healthcare journalism is the most influenced area of journalism by private sectors like coca-cola and big pharma. The print and broadcast media are affected by this influence as these companies control the factual dissemination of information through their ads on blogs and online publications or television commercials.

Gary Scwitzer, the healthnewsreview.org founder has continuously condemned news agencies that accept sponsorship from drug companies. According to him, “There is great potential harm in a further erosion of trust in journalism and health care…becoming numb to the presence of and influence of drug companies and other industry entities in the news and information disseminated to the public.”

Drug companies position themselves as benefactors of media organizations by either offering all-expense-paid trips to health journalists for their events or by sponsoring their news platforms. Examples of news agencies that have benefited from these sponsorships are STAT  and Vox being sponsored by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association (PhRMA). We can also say that these news agencies work for big pharma since they get their salaries from them. Big pharma ads rank the highest in commercial revenue for most TV and Radio stations. We begin to wonder if some of these news organizations will survive if big pharma ads were banned.

Consequently, when news organizations are sponsored by big pharma, the credibility of their news and other information publicized becomes questionable. They either release wrong information in the hope of shielding their benefactors, half-baked information so as not to expose the weaknesses of their sponsors, or withhold the truth entirely from the public. In either of these cases, there is misinformation and dishonesty which is not what journalism should entail.

“Many of my articles in the NYT carried pop-up ads for pharma. Infuriating.”

Elisabeth Rosenthal, the editor-in-chief of KHNews, wrote her unpleasant experience while working with the New York Times. She said in a tweet “Many of my articles in the NYT carried pop-up ads for pharma. Infuriating.” Although there are cases of news organizations losing their journalism ethics to gain sponsorship from drug companies, some journalists and news agencies remain unbiased in their reports.

One of the principles of The Association of Health Care Journalists states that “Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.” Unfortunately, some news organizations have not followed this principle. A similar case is The Australian “Health of the Nation” series which was sponsored by Medicines Australia. This caused concerns about the credibility of The Australian as a news organization.

News organizations need to look for sponsorship from places that would not stain their journalism. Just as Charles Ornstein, Senior Reporter at ProPublica said “whenever ideas for news coverage are generated from the marketing or advertising departments—not from the newsroom–one must question whether it was simply because an advertiser desired it…Letting outside commercial interests decide that rather than the newsroom is always a slippery slope.”


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