Pfizer spending money to train journalists in how to cover cancer

The National Press Foundation is sponsoring a four-day, all expenses paid trip to Washington for 15 reporters to learn how to improve their coverage of cancer issues. Pfizer is funding the seminar.

Former University of Minnesota journalism professor Gary Schwitzer writes:

Even if National Press Foundation staff choose the speakers and set the agenda, even if the Pfizer “guy never even showed up” last year, even if one reporter doesn’t recall Pfizer even being mentioned once at last year’s session, one fact remains. Some journalists will have taken Pfizer money to attend this session. Journalists are taught to avoid even the perception of conflict.

There’s one other point that needs to be made. Pfizer dictated the overall agenda (not its specific content). Pfizer didn’t make an unrestricted grant to a journalism training organization. The money is being spent to train journalists in how to cover cancer.

Frankly, if there is one issue in medicine that doesn’t need more attention right now, its cancer (I make one exception: we need more journalists who know how cover the cost-effectiveness of new cancer drugs that extend life by less than three months). How about the economy? How about the environment? How about low-income housing? How about financial regulation? How about education? How about job training? How about higher education? How about the courts? How about a half dozen other beats that used to have full-time reporters a generation ago and now go uncovered except for occasional stories in the nation’s largest newspapers?

Despite the valiant efforts of the Knight Foundation, the Reynolds Center for Business Journalism at Arizona State University and a few other eleemosynary endeavors, journalism spends less on training than almost any other profession. In these difficult economic times, newsrooms have no resources for training and reporters have almost no chance to leave the newsroom for even a day, much less a week for professional education. Moreover, the industry’s financial base — its advertisers — has no interest in the quality of the product that builds the audiences they seek to reach.

So corporate contributions to journalism professional training would be welcome — if they truly came with no strings attached. But the way the National Press Foundation set up the program with Pfizer, it has all the same problems as programs the drug industry funds in continuing medical education. The issue isn’t that the company dictated the specific content of the session. Pfizer and the NPF insist that didn’t happen. Rather, the company got to dictate the shape of the vessel into which that content got poured.

If Pfizer wants to help create a better press corps in the U.S., it should give a totally unrestricted grant to the National Press Foundation — and let them decide what seminars to hold. Or better yet, the money should go to a totally independent entity that isn’t in the business of conducting journalism training seminars. Let that independent entity evaluate proposals from training groups, each of whom can make their own case in their proposals for what areas are most in need of additional education and coverage.

Of course, Pfizer probably wouldn’t contribute to such a system, just as the drug industry has no interest in setting up an independent entity to receive corporate contributions for continuing medical education. If I were a working journalist in a newsroom who covers health care issues, I’d think twice about participating in the NPF seminar this October.

Merrill Goozner is a freelance writer, independent researcher and consultant who blogs at Gooznews on Health.

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