Transparency with sources – and readers – is necessary

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By Sylvia Stead

Globe and Mail

Last week, The Globe and Mail ran a feature in the Life section in a series called “It Happened to Me.” It was an interview with comedian Cathy Jones about experiencing the symptoms of vaginal atrophy.

The story included an interview with Dr. Vivien Brown, an assistant professor in the department of family and community medicine at the University of Toronto and president of the Federation of Medical Women of Canada. It did not reference any medication by name, although Dr. Brown did discuss various hormonal and non-hormonal treatments.

CBC medical sciences reporter Kelly Crowe has been looking into the public relations campaign to get women talking about vaginal atrophy, and asked the Globe reporter if she knew whether Ms. Jones and Dr. Brown were paid.

The reporter was not aware and once the issue was raised, she called the public relations firm that suggested Ms. Jones and Dr. Brown for an interview and has updated the story to say that both women were paid by Novo Nordisk Canada to speak about vaginal atrophy as part of a media campaign.

That is good, but it raises also the question of transparency.

The PR firm that suggested the two women for the interview did not say what company it was working for. This should have been stated, but Globe staff should also have asked who the firm was working for. During the interview process, the reporter found out that a pharmaceutical company was involved in the campaign.

And although the company’s product was not mentioned in the article, I think that should have been a moment to stop and consider whether it was worth continuing with the article. Perhaps the medical issue is important enough to warrant a story even though a pharmaceutical company was pushing to raise the awareness and likely demand for its product.

If so, it might have been helpful to contact a doctor not involved in the campaign for an independent view. Or the decision might have been to not publish.

In any case, the article as originally published was not transparent and open with the readers.

This column was originally published on GlobeandMail.com on 04 October 2016.

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