A medical school can attempt to keep pharmaceutical companies from influencing future doctors by banning pharmaceutical reps from roaming the halls, or from offering swag and free lunches to students. However, when faculty members who teach the same students are secretly in Big Pharma’s pocket—earning up to six figures on the side by lecturing for them, in violation of university policies—what’s a respected educational institution to do? This is one of the issues covered by Propublica investigative journalists in their story, “Med Schools Flunk at Keeping Faculty Off Pharma Speaking Circuit.”
When those who teach doctors are tied to the pharmaceutical industry, future doctors can be influenced, or even taught fallacies about illnesses and their treatment. Vital objective, or scientifically supported, information may also be withheld from students.
Besides paying many doctors tidy sums to extol the virtues of their medications, as lecturers, pharmaceutical companies provide funding to non-profit groups that advocate for those with illnesses, like the National Alliance on Mental Illness which was forced to disclose (in 2009) that nearly two-thirds of its funding came from pharmaceutical companies. In Canada, pharmaceutical companies are major sponsors of events like Mental Illness Awareness Week. One of the results of Big Pharma’s “generosity” is that the big bad truth about many drugs is swept under a big carpet. Doctors may also be influenced to recommend inappropriate treatments.
Enter Propublica. The proper functioning of democracy requires informed citizens. But what the news media reports is filtered because of corporate ownership of media, media outlets’ dependence on advertising revenue, and the need–in order to turn a profit–to cater to a public that would rather be entertained than informed.
Consequently, the public does not receive the information it needs to knowledgeably participate in democracy. And as the stories relating to Big Pharma’s influence on the medical profession demonstrate, the public does not have the information necessary to ensure its health and safety.
Propublica is an independent, non-profit media outlet. That means it’s free to tell whatever story it considers newsworthy–independent of advertising dollars, the approval of the public, or circulation rates.
The fact that 37% of the 100 largest daily newspapers in the US have no full-time investigative reporters, and the reporting of hard news is declining, organisations committed to investigative journalism are essential to fill the gap in the news business. Propublica does that, by allowing other news outlets to republish its stories in their publications, with credit. The drawback of the Propublica model is that unless major media outlets carry stories it produces, they won’t get wide readership. Time will tell how transformational Propublica, and other independent investigative news organisations, can be.
For democracy to function as it should, it’s also essential that a nation’s citizens have knowledge of the world beyond their borders. How else can a populace make informed judgments about international affairs? Unfortunately, Propublica lacks such a focus, as most of its stories are of a national scope. To truly serve Americans, it must begin exploring actions and events of a global scale.