Bioethics Forum Essay
Newspaper Op-Eds Should Disclose Authors’ Industry Ties
Earlier this month, The Seattle Times published an op-ed by Samuel Browd, medical director of Seattle Children’s Sport Concussion Program, on the risks of brain injury in youth sports. Dr. Browd acknowledged troubling research on the dangers of repetitive brain trauma, but also emphasized that millions of children “have played contact sports without overt symptoms” and that “kids sitting around being inactive is bad and unhealthy.”
What The Seattle Times originally didn’t mention is that Dr. Browd is a cofounder of VICIS, a football helmet company now selling $950 helmets. Dr. Browd also serves as unaffiliated neurologic consultant to the NFL and as an independent neurologic consultant to the Seattle Seahawks. In response to reader comments, The Seattle Times updated Dr. Browd’s bio with his VICIS affiliation, but not his NFL connections.
Unfortunately, The Seattle Times is far from alone in failing to inform readers of an op-ed author’s industry ties that are directly relevant to the health topics addressed by the piece. For example, a HealthNewsReview.org analysis found that authors with drug industry connections have submitted guest editorials promoting perspectives friendly to pharmaceutical companies. Newspapers around the country have published these opinion pieces without disclosing their authors’ conflicts of interest.
Some editors told HealthNewsReview.org that they consider such disclosures unnecessary for op-ed articles. For example, Sandra Shea, managing editor in charge of opinion for the Philadelphia Media Network, explained, “We assume that readers are intelligent enough to understand that opinion writers may have agendas.” On the other hand, Edward Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, pointed out that newspapers routinely identify such connections when they quote experts in news stories.
I agree that the standard of disclosing industry ties in news stories should also be applied to op-ed columns. Authors’ agendas are not always obvious to readers and, indeed, authors may have multiple connections and roles informing their perspectives. For this reason, authors’ industry ties as well as their other professional positions and academic credentials should all be mentioned where they are relevant to the topic under discussion.
This is particularly important in the realm of sports safety. My research with my colleague Daniel Goldberg has identified conflicts of interest with the National Football League and its public health efforts to address brain trauma in youth sports. In addition to the league’s track record of downplaying the risks, helmet manufacturers have historically failed to warn consumers that their helmets are designed to prevent skull fractures, but not concussions. For these reasons, it is important for editors and readers to take sports industry ties into account in evaluating perspectives on sports safety.
With football pre-season drawing near, and with concerns about traumatic brain injuries still receiving substantial media coverage, we’re likely to see many more opinion pieces on sports-related brain injuries published in the upcoming months. Readers deserve to know the full story of where these perspectives are coming from.
Kathleen Bachynski is a postdoctoral fellow in medical humanities at NYU Langone Health. Twitter: @bachyns
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