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Drug Ads Masquerading as News

Letter to Local Television Station General Managers and News Directors

July 9, 2004 

In December, 1990 as part of a Senate hearing chaired by Senator Ted Kennedy, a former employee of an advertising company that made video news releases for pharmaceutical companies testified. He explained how these slanted messages favoring the drug whose company paid for the “news release” were surreptitiously inserted into TV programming in a way that made them appear to be unbiased news, rather than the advertisements they actually were.

It appears that this form of misleading advertising is about to be re-launched this summer. We sent this letter to 258 local television station general managers and news directors in the country’s top-30 television markets.

General Manager, TV Station
Street Address
City, State Zip

Dear Mr./Ms.:

This summer, health information publisher MediZine Inc. and syndicated news programmer Daily Health Feed (DHF) will begin offering a series of health-related features to TV stations in major U.S. markets. This will be in addition to the DHF health news feeds that already are carried by stations in 39 markets. According to MediaDailyNews, these segments will be bought and paid for by major pharmaceutical marketers and offered free of charge to local stations.

This programming, although disguised as “news,” is nothing more than veiled advertising for pharmaceutical companies, which will use the free access to news programming to promote consumer demand for their products. According to news reports, the “Headline Health” segments will feature specific drugs, new medical procedures, medical organizations and even information about specific clinical trials.

As a physician and consumer advocate who has monitored the pharmaceutical industry for more than 30 years in Washington, I strongly urge you to reject this programming. This is a blatant violation of accepted journalistic tenets. Your viewers will undoubtedly be deceived into believing this content is a product of the normal newsgathering process, which is supposed to be objective and non-biased – not driven by an economic agenda or marketing considerations. If you use this content, you not only will be doing a disservice to your viewers, but you will be actively participating in the purveying of propaganda and, more seriously, the erosion of journalistic standards that distinguish a free and open democracy. The line between editorial content and advertising should be clear and bright. As you blur this line with products such as this, you will undermine your credibility as well as that of American journalism in general.

Recently, major journalistic institutions such as The New York Times and USA Today have experienced embarrassing scandals that eroded public confidence in the reliability of journalists. And several recent examples of “fake news” used by TV stations have resulted in well-deserved criticism from experts in journalistic ethics and others.

For example, the U.S. General Accounting Office earlier this year   determined that the Bush administration’s use of video news releases to trumpet the 2003 Medicare law was a form of “covert propaganda” and violated federal law. These segments, which featured an actor posing as a journalist, were used by TV stations across the country and aired as news segments.

WFLA in Tampa, Fla., was criticized in The Washington Post and elsewhere in 2003 for its decision to sell segments in its morning show to guests who want to promote products and services. For $2,500, guests could tout their wares for four to six minutes. The station insisted the practice was aboveboard, but after the Society of Professional Journalists denounced it, the station began identifying the segments as paid advertising.

On its web site, the Poynter Institute, a prestigious journalism school, addressed its concerns about the use of MediZine’s “Headline Health” videos with a reminder of the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) guidelines for balancing business pressures and journalism values:

Professional electronic journalists should gather and report news without fear or favor and vigorously resist undue influence from any outside forces, including advertisers, sources, story subjects, powerful individuals and special-interest groups.

Poynter also cautions that,

News operations should use press releases and video news releases very selectively and only when journalistically justified. Journalists should clearly inform viewers/listeners when corporations, public relations agencies, news release services, advertisers or others who are not journalists provide any material you are using in a news story.

In a Web article called “Ethics in Television News” (May 18, 2004, at http://poynteronline.org/content/content_view.asp?id=65894) RTNDA President Barbara Cochran told Poynter Institute media ethics expert Bob Steele:

Stations are trying to maximize their profits and the sales departments can come up with some ingenious schemes to generate revenues that may involve the news department. The best test for such plans is how it would look if it were exposed on the front page of the local newspaper. If it would be embarrassing, it’s probably not a good idea. Stations that ignored that test have had to change their plans. The cost in credibility is huge compared to the dollars earned in revenue.

A solid line between news and advertising is needed now more than ever as drug companies have developed increasingly deceptive and unscrupulous tactics to sell their products in a cut-throat market. Drug companies have been criticized for making false or misleading claims in drug ads that directly target consumers, having excessive influence over what doctors prescribe, influencing the outcome of medical research, suppressing research that reflects negatively on drugs, and even ghostwriting research papers and opinion pieces.

Just last month, Warner-Lambert, a division of the drug giant Pfizer, agreed to pay more than $430 million to settle criminal and civil charges that the company engaged in a   widespread, methodical effort to encourage physicians to prescribe the anti-seizure drug Neurontin for unapproved uses. A Pfizer subsidiary (Parke-Davis) executive reportedly instructed the sales staff, “We need to be holding their hand and whispering in their ear: Neurontin for pain, Neurontin for everything.” An NBC News report aired recordings of the executive responding to employee concerns about off-label use of the drug, telling them, “Don’t give me any of that safety crap.”

And in early June, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer sued GlaxoSmithKline for consumer fraud, charging that the company covered up negative data about its popular anti-depressant Paxil. The company allegedly failed to inform physicians that studies showed the drug not only did not work in adolescents but in some cases could cause suicidal tendencies.

Meanwhile, drug companies have dramatically ramped up marketing efforts since the government relaxed rules on direct-to-consumer advertising in 1997. A 2002 Harvard-MIT study (“Trends in Direct-to-Consumer Advertising of Prescription Drugs”) found that direct-to-consumer advertising by the industry increased from $791 million in 1996 to roughly $2.5 billion in 2000. Add to this scenario the fact that the drug ad watchdog – the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – is no longer watching closely to see whether drug companies are violating advertising laws. This is evidenced by an 85 percent decrease in FDA enforcement actions against prescription drug advertising violations between 1998 and 2003. If the FDA isn’t watching television, it certainly won’t be monitoring MediZine’s pseudo-news stories that promote drugs.

The education of patients – or physicians – is too important to be left to the pharmaceutical industry, with its pseudo-educational campaigns designed, first and foremost, to promote prescription drugs. It remains a responsibility of the journalism gatekeepers to prevent the airing of this covert propaganda.

We ask you and other broadcast journalists to protect the integrity of the news by barring MediZine’s advertorial health features and any similar type of sponsored “education” from your station’s air waves. This will help ensure that viewers see fair, accurate and balanced coverage of medical topics.


Sidney M. Wolfe, M.D.
Public Citizen’s Health Research Group

cc [News Director Name]
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)