May 01, 2006
The pen got too mighty
As a former journalist, I was always trained to write the truth. My duty to society was to provide a fair and balanced account of whatever event I was covering.
Call me naïve, but I believed that. I still do.
I also believe that what we write speaks volumes about our credibility. When the time came to move into the public relations field, I left journalism feeling good, knowing that my reporting of health issues helped others.
But things are not the way they used to be. In the past few years, it seems as if journalistic integrity in the consumer world has deteriorated considerably and been replaced with sensationalism, egotism and the drive to sell newspapers.
It's disheartening to see just how far some reporters have veered away from journalistic ethics. My media relations team has come across articles that are blatantly one-sided and poorly researched; reporters' reliance on non-reputable sources clearly demonstrates how honest digging for credible information has gone by the wayside.
We've pitched national and local publications that have demanded we place advertisements before they would even consider covering our stories. And we've arranged interviews with journalists whose purpose was clearly not to seek the truth but to support their "truth."
Of course, certain columnists are expected to swagger. But arrogance, in this field, can quickly breed ignorance. More and more writers seem to have traded their news judgment for bigger egos. We've talked with reporters who unbashedly told us the reason they've "focused on" (read: attacked) a specific company was because "it was an easy target."
Gradually, this deterioration of journalistic integrity has created paranoia within our industry. As a result, pharmaceutical companies have shied away from talking with consumer media--or any media, for that matter.
While my colleagues and I always advise our executives to tell the truth, we can no longer reassure them that the dialogue will be balanced and the coverage fair. So we bolt the doors and slip carefully worded statements under the door instead. Sadly, the truth will have to be found another way.
And so, without balanced information, companies are sending more communication to shareholders, advising them of negative news impact. Sales representatives are spending more time defending their products to healthcare professionals. And we are doing more monitoring for negative stories in preparation for the "inevitable."
In the end, everyone suffers. The company. The physician. The patient.
Professional integrity is the cornerstone of journalistic credibility. And for reporters to lose that credibility is to relinquish their role as the voice of the people.
But there is hope. It's called grassroots. Companies are realizing that it may be better to bypass mainstream media altogether and focus instead on smaller, more intimate audiences, such as local churches, rotary clubs and health fairs. They are recognizing the value of meeting with neighborhood bowling leagues and soccer moms.
We've certainly found that by building databases of loyal supporters, and communicating with them, we're able to tell pharma's story more effectively.
As for communicating to the masses: Forget it. Those who control the message have lost the integrity to convey it.
Marita Gomez is a partner at HealthInfo Direct in Schaumburg, IL