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Media’s treatment of Big Pharma can sometimes be a bitter pill to swallow
June 2009
by Amy Swinderman  |  Email the author

"Just the facts, ma'am."

While this sentence came to known as the radio and TV crime drama Dragnet's popular catchphrase, it's also a line that journalism teachers and professors and editors across the country use to keep overzealous reporters and writers in line. Those four words sum up the mission of any good news organization: report the facts to the people, and let them form their own opinions.

It's not a hard-and-fast rule. As with any philosophy, there is room for interpretation. Occasionally, and seemingly more often these days in the era of what I call "fast food" journalism—"give it to me now, it doesn't have to be good or even hot, I'm just hungry"—news organizations state the facts, but bend the rule slightly and present or slant the news in an attention-grabbing way that sells papers, increases Web site visits and spikes their Google rankings.

Unfortunately, this tactic—which might make sense from a business standpoint—doesn't always give the reader the whole story. Then the whole thing goes "viral"—meaning it attacks the Web like a bad case of the swine flu—and before you know it, the slanted version of the news becomes the story.

This was the case last month as many major news groups elected to take what should have been perceived as good news in a bad economy, and presented it as yet another slam on greedy, bloodsucking Big Pharma.

Seeking to help unemployed Americans who have recently lost their jobs and health insurance to continue to take their prescriptions, Pfizer Inc. announced a program that enables these folks and their families to receive any Pfizer medicines they take for free for up to one year. According to Pfizer, nearly 46 million Americans lack health insurance coverage, and that number is increasing as unemployment rates reach their highest levels in 25 years.

But to the rabid media, that isn't what's important here. Here's what is: "Pfizer offers free Viagra to unemployed Americans." Yes, Viagra is one of Pfizer's many blockbuster drugs, but what about the millions of unemployed Americans who would benefit from free antibiotics, heart medications and antidepressants?

As a trade journalist, I have sometimes been accused by my "mainstream media" peers of being an "apologist" for the industries I cover. While I think that viewpoint is off-base, and Big Pharma is far from perfect, this is one of those times where I'm going to call a spade a spade and say, "shame on you." Amidst the daily reports of gloom and doom, at a time when many Americans are being forced to choose between keeping their lights on and buying their medications, couldn't we have just reported the facts and let Jay Leno and David Letterman deliver the punchlines? Is it any wonder that most Americans express dissatisfaction with our healthcare system?

In an unrelated but relevant story, Entrepreneur, a publisher based in Irvine, Calif., has filed a motion U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of New York to dismiss a $178 million lawsuit brought against it by a group of investors who allege the magazine misled them about a company featured on its "Hot 100" list. Citing rulings in similar court cases, Entrepreneur actually argued that it is "under no duty to provide information with care to its readers."

Unfortunately, Average Joe Newspaper Reader isn't aware of that. What a shame.



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