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Why journalists don’t always reveal their sources’ conflicts of interests: findings from the swine flu pandemic

With concerns about avian influenza in China hitting the international headlines, there are some timely findings from a study investigating the experiences of 24 Australian journalists in covering the 2009 swine flu pandemic.

An initial analysis from this study, published late last year in the  Medical Journal of Australia (abstract free, pay for full article), gave some practical tips for organisations and individuals involved in providing advice in times of public health crisis.

It suggested the pandemic had left journalists and their audiences more sceptical about the motivations of governments, health departments and experts. There was a view that health departments, institutions and experts should be more transparent and upfront in declaring their conflicts of interest publicly and during interviews.

Another analysis from these interviews has now been published, A legacy of the swine flu global pandemic: Journalists, expert sources, and conflicts of interest. It explores some of the reasons that journalists don’t always tell their audiences of their sources’ conflicts of interest.

Thanks to Dr Kate Holland and Professor Warwick Blood from Canberra University for reporting below on the findings, which suggest “there is a need for governments and the scientific community to take greater responsibility for making conflicts of interest transparent”. (And a declaration: Melissa Sweet contributed to this research project.)

***

Investigating and exposing conflicts of interest among their sources is not always a straightforward mat­ter for journalists

Kate Holland and Warwick Blood write:

Conflicts of interest and potential conflicts of interest have been a focus of political reporting in NSW and Queensland in recent weeks.  But what of the potential for conflicts of interest among quoted sources in news stories?

How do journalists perceive and approach conflicts of interest among their sources and what are the factors that shape their prac­tices in this regard?

Concerns about potential conflicts of interest among health professionals are not new, with allegations made about the promotional practices of pharmaceutical companies and also about disease mongering.

The recent 2009 pandemic swine flu outbreak provided us with a case study to explore this contentious issue. We interviewed key journalists about their reporting practices during the outbreak.

We were interested to find out if, and in what ways, conflicts of interest emerged as a salient issue for journalists in their reporting. The findings cast light on some of the factors that may contribute to conflicts of interest going unnoticed and unreported more generally.

The swine flu pandemic, as we know, prompted a mass vaccination rollout in Australia and elsewhere. In its wake, concerns were raised about the potential conflicts of interest of experts involved in providing advice to the public, governments and to policy-making bodies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO)

Journalists can play an important role in mediating concerns about conflicts of inter­est and influencing public confidence in public health advice. But there are also concerns that news organisations often fail to investigate and identify the financial backing of their ‘expert’ sources. Our study identified some possible reasons for this.

The outbreak of swine flu generated dread-inspiring statements from health authorities about the risk it posed. The spectre of a potential pandemic loomed over much of the early news coverage until a pandemic was officially declared by the WHO on 11 June 2009.

Swine flu was described by the WHO as a ‘public health emergency of international concern’ and its Director General warned that ‘all of humanity’ was threatened by the virus. There was evidence in our study that how swine flu was presented by authorities such as the WHO contributed to an environment in which the issue of conflicts of interest was not at the forefront of journalists’ minds.

Beyond this particular context, investigating and exposing conflicts of interest among their sources is not always a straightforward mat­ter for journalists.

They value their relationships with their sources and their tacit trust in them may allow conflicts of interest to remain unattended and undisclosed. This may be heightened in the context of an emerging infectious disease or other issue where journalists are heavily reliant on scientific experts and health authorities.

Confidence in their expertise as well as familiarity with a source are among the reasons for not asking about conflicts of interest, seemingly more so than a concern that doing so might lead sources to withdraw future cooperation with them. As one journalist said, ‘I don’t think anyone is scared to ask or is worried about asking. I think it’s more about whether your antenna goes up …’.

The swine flu pandemic may have acted to further sensitise journalists to conflicts of interest as an issue worth investigating in relation to government and expert responses to public health issues. Overall, there was a strong sense that experts’ conflicts of interest matter, particularly if they are involved in providing policy advice or giving information to the general public. Journalists referred to learning to be more suspicious, to query motivations, and to look more closely at the industry connections of those making decisions.

Several journalists identified indirect means of obtaining information about conflicts of interest, such as looking at declarations made in published research. While an indication that they are attuned to the issue, this method is also limited, particularly in the context of reporting on emerging infectious diseases when there may be a delay with medical studies being published. More broadly, the trustworthiness of by-lines in the medical literature is compromised by concerns about under-reporting or significant variability in reporting of conflicts of interest in published medical literature.

Clearly, journalists are just one part of the picture. They can be constrained in their ability to address conflicts of interest by the expectations and priorities of news editors and managers, who may need to be convinced of the relevance and newsworthiness of the issue.

Thus, there is a need for governments and the scientific community to take greater responsibility for making conflicts of interest transparent. Media organisations also have a role to play and so too do institutions such as universities and other research and government-funded agencies to ensure transparent declaration and effective management of conflicts of interest. Unsurprisingly, journalists emphasised the importance of experts being open about their industry links.

A participant in our study suggested some form of public register that is regularly updated to reflect the conflicts of interest of experts could be beneficial. Clear advice and guidance about how the information included in such a resource should be interpreted and used would be needed to ensure that it enabled the public to determine the over­all legitimacy of people’s claims, without unnecessarily jeop­ardising public trust.

• This research, published in Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism, was part of a larger project examining news media coverage of swine flu, public responses, and the role of expert news sources. It was funded by an NHMRC grant #628010 ‘Public and media understandings of A/H1N1 (swine flu) within a risk communication environment’.

Holland, K., Sweet, M., Blood, R.W., and Fogarty, A. (in press). A legacy of the swine flu global pandemic: journalists, expert sources, and conflicts of interest. Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism.  

• See here, for previous related stories at Croakey