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PBS Ombudsman

Different Strokes From Different Folks

It is still sort of holiday-quiet in the ombudsman's mailbox, but one critical letter from a viewer in Miami raises an editorial issue that I seldom get asked about — a comparison between NPR (radio) and PBS (television) coverage of the same story — and seems worthy of some further discussion.

The story involves the announcement, on Dec. 16, by GlaxoSmithKline, one of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies, that "it will no longer pay doctors to promote its drugs, and it will stop compensating sales representatives based on the number of prescriptions doctors write," as the PBS NewsHour reported in introducing the story.

First, some background. I often get email and calls from people who get PBS and NPR confused. But I rarely hear from someone comparing their approach to the same story. Both are public broadcasters but both are separate entities.

When it comes to news, NPR is actually among the biggest news operations in the country, with a large newsroom in Washington, D.C., dozens of bureaus in this country and around the world, and some 350 reporters, correspondents, producers, editors and other news staffers. PBS does not have a newsroom and does not produce anything for television. Rather, it distributes programs produced by its member stations and independent producers. The venerable, flagship news program, PBS NewsHour, is produced by MacNeil/Lehrer Productions in association primarily with member station WETA just outside Washington. In comparison with NPR, the NewsHour's own news team is quite small.

Here's what the viewer wrote:

"I'm a devoted watcher of the NewsHour. I'm talking decades (I'm 67). I'm also a devoted listener to NPR. The two news organizations broadcast roughly similar news stories. Sometimes one is better than the other or vice versa. But yesterday [12/17], the situation was outrageous. Luckily I had listened to the NPR story before I watched PBS. The NPR story about GlaxoSmithKline was excellent, interviewing top experts on the issue. By contrast, the PBS NewsHour interviews amounted to a whitewash of the drug/medical complex practices. Given the enormous importance of the issue for this country, you should make amends. I'll be watching for them."

I should say at the outset that I didn't find the PBS NewsHour treatment of that story to be outrageous or a whitewash. It was informative, as I find most NewsHour segments, and took the time to capture some of the complexity surrounding this issue. But, as always, it does so in a traditional, polite NewsHour style, with the interviews frequently conducted by one of the two anchors, in this case Judy Woodruff, in which there are two guests with somewhat different views and a fair amount of asking one guest what they think about what the other guest just said.

The NewsHour segment took nine-and-a-half minutes. The NPR radio report took less than half that time, was also informative, but had a sharper edge throughout and was conducted by a general assignment business correspondent, Yuki Noguchi. Being on radio, rather than in a television studio with the guests sitting next to the host on camera, Noguchi was also able to succinctly summarize the views of those she interviewed, while using fewer long quotes from them.

Both programs used Dr. Jerry Avorn of the Harvard Medical School as one of the featured guests, which is another reason why I don't agree with the characterization in the viewer's letter. But Noguchi, helpfully I thought, tells the listening audience right at the start that Dr. Avorn also "writes about the medical community's conflict of interest problems." Woodruff made no attempt at the outset to describe the views of the two guests other than to say "they have different views."

Woodruff did not shrink from the controversial nature of this subject, telling viewers as she introduced the segment that GSK's "moves come following other problems for the company, including a bribery scandal in China involving payments to allegedly boost sales, and a settlement with the U.S. government last year on marketing drugs for improper uses."

Her other guest was also from the Harvard Medical School, Dr. Thomas Stossel, who took an opposing view on some of Dr. Avorn's criticisms but added more complexity to the controversy — and value to the discussion, in my opinion — pointing out, for example, that for physicians and ultimately for patients, "it's the quality of the information, not the judgments about the motives of the people providing it, that is important."

That kind of complexity was not contained in the NPR report, which had a slight editorial tone but was livelier, more focused, more critical but also managed to provide other important aspects in less than half the time.

More Than Just One Viewer Objects

Today, HealthNewsReview.org published a strong criticism of the NewsHour segment, describing it as "almost waste of time" and pointing out that The Harvard Crimson newspaper called Dr. Stossel "the Pro-Industry Professor."

The tone I mentioned above came through, as I heard it, in the reporter pointing out: "The pharmaceutical industry and GlaxoSmithKline have run into many legal problems about their marketing practices in recent years." That's for sure. But then she went on to state: "That is part of what is driving Glaxo's changes." The reporter summarizes points from industry critic and founder of the advocacy group Public Citizen, Sidney Wolfe, about a $3 billion guilty plea last year and $1 billion more in penalties over the last decade. Then Wolfe is heard from directly saying, "If you look at what they have been caught doing in 2003, 2005, 2010 and 2012 . . . are not part of their new set of promises." I have no reason to doubt that but a few more seconds of explanation might have helped.

On the other hand, the NPR report, in contrast to the longer NewsHour segment, very helpfully pointed out that the administration's new health care law is also driving the change in pharmaceutical promotion because next year the government will launch a public database detailing how much every doctor receives in compensation from drug companies.

Other useful points made quickly in the NPR report were that the regulatory and business environment for the industry is shifting, that new drug promotion is becoming less necessary because fewer new drugs are being launched, that doctors get more information online these days, and that GSK says that all the new changes will be implemented in all the countries it operates in by early 2016. It also pointed out that GSK said the idea of its new policies was to be more transparent about how it sells drugs.

So, whether you watched or listened, what you got was news, analysis and opinions about a new development by a leading company within an industry that provokes a lot of strong feelings among consumers, consumer advocates and critics. But I didn't see the NewsHour treatment as a "whitewash" or "almost waste of time." I think viewers can figure these things out for themselves.

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