Media Portrayal of Conflicts of Interest in Biomedical Research

Article excerpt

Due to the growing industry support of biomedical research, studies are increasingly scrutinized because of conflicts of interest of investigators and concerns about inaccurate reporting of study results by the popular media.

The Association of American Medical Colleges has defined conflict of interest in science as "situations in which financial or other personal considerations may compromise, or have the appearance of compromising, an investigator's professional judgment in conducting or reporting research." (1)

For the purpose of our study, conflict of interest referred to both "research conflicts", the primary example of which is industry funding of research, and "researcher conflicts" which occur when the researchers themselves have financial ties to industry, and in some cases could potentially benefit from a particular study outcome. Researchers who are employed by or invest in the manufacturer of a study compound or its competitors would fall into this category.

This issue is important in a media context as the general public gets much of its information about science and technology from the popular media. For this reason, media reporting has the capacity to shape public perceptions of safety and efficacy of a particular treatment, thereby influencing patterns of use (2).

Our study compared newspaper coverage of biomedical research to the reporting of the same studies in the medical literature. To do this, we first examined 109 clinical trials of both herbal remedies (n=58) and conventional pharmaceuticals (n=51), as reported in the medical literature. We then compared them to 598 newspaper articles that reported the results of these trials. We primarily assessed the disclosure of funding information and competing interests, as well as claims of efficacy, and reporting of risk and overall tone.

One dominant trend was the relatively infrequent reporting of conflict of interest. Only 9% of newspaper articles disclosed a conflict of interest in the reported trial. In comparison, 22% of the trial reports in the medical literature reported a conflict. In light of evidence that approximately 50% of articles in major medical journals are industry funded, these results suggest that conflict of interest is under-reported in both the scientific literature and the popular media.

We also noted that funding information was disclosed in 77% of medical journal articles, while only 13% of newspaper articles reported such information. Even fewer articles (14% of medical journal articles and 2% of newspaper articles) noted the role the funding agency. This is significant, as information pertaining to funding arrangements, particularly the role of the funding body, can reveal conflicts of interest indirectly. For example, a report that the company funding a particular trial also had a role in the development of study methodology and data analysis not only reveals a conflict of interest, but also suggests that we should be concerned about bias arising from such a problematic arrangement. It is important to note that such bias can arise despite the good intentions of all parties involved.

Interesting trends also became evident when we examined the reporting of benefits and risks. …