An investigative journalism organization recently took an in-depth look at pharma with its ”Dollars for Docs” report. In return, PharmExec takes a close look back at ProPublica.
Last month, PharmExec’s senior editor Walter Armstrong blogged about news organization ProPublica’s “Dollars for Docs” report, in which ProPublica—along with other news sources including National Public Radio, the PBS Nightly Business Report, the Chicago Tribute, the Boston Globe, and Consumer Reports—shed some shocking light on how much physicians were being paid by Big Pharma to participate in continuing medical education (CME) and to promote certain products.
On its website, ProPublica calls itself “an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.” The website goes on to tout the importance of investigative journalism and of focusing on stories with “moral force.”
And so, in that spirit, PharmExec decided to do a little investigative journalism of its own, to find out more about this group that seems to have dubbed itself the moral compass (and conscience) of the journalism industry.
The group began publishing in 2008, and is now headquartered in Manhattan, led by such media bigwigs as Paul Steiger, former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal; Stephen Engelberg, former investigative editor of The New York Times; and Richard Tofel, former assistant publisher of The Wall Street Journal.
The “About Us” page on the company’s website lists time and budget constraints, new technology in publishing, and the overall “business crisis in publishing” as reasons why the nations largest news sources have—according to ProPublica—let investigative journalism fall by the wayside. According to the website, we, as a nation, “face a situation in which sources of opinion are proliferating, but sources of facts on which those opinions are based are shrinking.”
Part of ProPublica’s effort to rebalance journalism was the aforementioned “Dollars for Docs” report, in which the company “complied thousands of records to track the financial ties between doctors and drug companies.” This investigation has led to several stories on ProPublica’s website, including such topics as “Doctors on Pharma Payroll: What our Partners Found,” “How The Drug Companies Say They Screen Their Speaker Docs,” “Payments to Doctors by Most Pharma Companies Still Remain Secret,” and “Who’s on Pharma’s Top-Paid List?”
Just as important—if not more so—than what ProPublica is writing, is what everyone else is writing. It seems the investigation has fulfilled ProPublica’s intentions—“ …to spur reform…”—because the information in “Dollars for Docs” has been used to ignite public interest and to spawn related news stories in several other news outlets nation wide, including The Washington Post, The Herald Sun in North Carolina, the Des Moines Register in Iowa, and the Times Free Press of Chattanooga in Tennessee.
With technology in the publishing world constantly evolving, a new model like ProPublica’s—an independent progressive database that delivers compelling evidence on industry practices and aims to “stimulate positive change”—may be the wave of the future. The pharma industry can resist such changes, or embrace them. With information such as that contained in the “Dollars for Docs” reports so much more easily accessible to the masses, pharma must be aware of the message that’s being taken to the public—the patients, the very people who pharma aims to serve—and hold companies and ourselves accountable for the words and deeds we choose each day in our professional capacities.
Pharma now has to be ready to address coordination regarding anti-industry messaging to a level not seen in the past.