Prescription For Bias: Executive Summary

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 Liberal Democrats have taken charge in Congress, and one of the top targets for their anti-business rage has long been the pharmaceutical industry. In their “100 hours” plans, Democrats tried to institute price controls on Medicare prescription drugs. Have their attacks on industry encountered a receptive media?

     Yes. The Business & Media Institute (BMI) has found a recurring network news bias against the pharmaceutical industry, treating drugs as an entitlement rather than an expensive-to create product, refusing to credit and often ignoring entirely the companies that made the medicine. Even when one new drug was hailed as a “major advance in combating breast cancer” and a “major medical breakthrough,” its manufacturer was given only a passing mention on one network. BMI looked at 132 stories on prescription or over-the-counter drugs from the ABC, CBS, and NBC evening newscasts between January 1 and Sept. 30, 2006. Among the findings:

    Industry Ignored: While covering everything from medical “controversies” to breakthroughs, nearly 80 percent of the stories excluded the viewpoint of the pharmaceutical industry, failing to include either a company statement or a company spokesman.

    Media Overemphasize Cost to Consumer: The broadcast networks mentioned costs to consumers or drug company revenues 11 times more often than they mentioned drug development costs.

    Networks Leave Companies Unnoticed: Only 22 percent of the stories even named the company that developed the drug or drugs featured in the story.

    What Development Costs?: A mere 2 percent of stories dealt with the cost of developing drugs, and even those costs were downplayed by industry skeptics.

    Special Treatment for Left-Wing Causes: Nineteen stories focused on drugs that were popular liberal causes such as the morning-after pill or HPV vaccine Gardasil. The networks didn’t apply the same scrutiny to those drugs and their makers as they did to others.

To improve coverage, BMI recommends that the networks:

    Remember the First ‘W,’ Who: The five W’s - who, what, where, when, and why - are fundamental to journalistic storytelling. Stories focusing on the promise of breakthroughs in drugs should at least reference the company name and where possible include a company representative.

    Drugs Are More than Extremes: Too often drugs are portrayed as either a perfect cure or a dangerous killer. Most are neither extreme; instead, they extend and better people’s lives. Journalists should seek to relay the pros and cons of a given drug in each story and remind the audience that ultimately, every patient’s medical needs are unique and require physician consultation.

    Report Dispassionately on the Role of Money in Medicine: When reporting on the costs of drugs, journalists should take care not just to report on the cost of drugs to the consumer but the costs borne by companies in researching and developing them.

    Give Private Enterprise Its Due: While third-party experts from research labs, hospitals, and universities are crucial to reporting on medical and pharmaceutical stories, the media should include more representatives from pharmaceutical companies. News consumers gain a fuller perspective on the issue when drug company executives can bring the perspective of the industry to bear.