Comparing media coverage of the pharmaceutical industry: pre-and post-pandemic lockdown

Stephen J. Porth (Department of Management, Saint Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA)
George P. Sillup (Department of Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Marketing, Saint Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA)

International Journal of Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Marketing

ISSN: 1750-6123

Article publication date: 1 December 2022

64

Abstract

Purpose

The purpose of this paper is to analyze media coverage of the pharmaceutical industry before and after the COVID-19 lockdown to determine whether the coverage changed in light of a global health-care crisis and the fast-track development of vaccines and antiviral treatments.

Design/methodology/approach

The top five US newspapers were audited, comparing the 12-month periods before and after March 2020 coinciding with the pandemic lockdown, yielding 493 front-page articles and editorials. Each headline and full-text article was separately analyzed and categorized as either positive, negative or neutral toward the pharmaceutical industry. A frequency analysis of the hot button issues covered in each article was conducted.

Findings

Year 1 and Year 2 audit results were compared to identify changes in media coverage pre- and post-lockdown. The amount of coverage of the industry increased 145% and the tone of both headlines and articles shifted dramatically. Only one of the five newspapers had a net positive article rating of the industry pre-lockdown, four of five were net positive post-lockdown. The proportion of positive headlines increased 165%. The top issues discussed in the coverage shifted from persistent challenges for the industry (e.g. opioid crisis, high cost of drugs) to the emergence of the virus and status of vaccine development.

Originality/value

This research establishes how media coverage of the pharmaceutical industry changed as the industry responded to a global health-care crisis and identifies implications for industry stakeholders.

Keywords

Citation

Porth, S.J. and Sillup, G.P. (2022), "Comparing media coverage of the pharmaceutical industry: pre-and post-pandemic lockdown", International Journal of Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Marketing, Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJPHM-05-2022-0044

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2022, Emerald Publishing Limited


Introduction

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the public perception of “Big Pharma”, the term used to describe the major multinational pharmaceutical companies collectively as an industry sector, was poor. In the USA, Big Pharma ranked below the federal government and companies in the oil and gas industry according to a Gallup poll taken just before the outbreak of the pandemic (McCarthy, 2019). In fact, the pharmaceutical industry ranked last of 25 sectors in the poll. These findings are perplexing to some industry stakeholders given the mission statements of these companies which are peppered with declarations such as “We innovate every day to make the world a healthier place” (Pfizer), “We want to transform healthcare, change the lives of billions of people for the better and address some of the biggest healthcare challenges facing humankind” (AstraZeneca) and “We invent for life We’re following the science to tackle some of the world’s greatest health threats” (Merck).

Indeed, the pharmaceutical industry is among the most important global industry sectors because of its economic clout and its impact on the health and well-being of people around the world. In the USA, according to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association (PhRMA), the industry’s trade association:

the overall value added of the U.S. pharmaceutical industry, or its contribution to U.S. gross domestic product (GDP), is substantial, with a total value added impact exceeding $625 billion, accounting for 3.2 % of U.S. GDP (PhRMA, 2019).

The pharmaceutical industry is a major driver of the US economy.

Pharmaceutical companies also drive health-care innovation, with a record of discovering and developing safe and efficacious drugs that allow patients to live longer, healthier and more productive lives. “Since 2000, PhRMA member companies have invested more than $1 trillion in the search for new treatments and cures, including $91.1 billion in 2020 alone” (PhRMA, 2022). Furthermore, studies confirm the inherent risk of those investments. The same PhRMA report states that on average, “it takes 10-15 years and costs $2.6 billion to develop one new medicine, including the cost of the many failures”.

Nonetheless, in 2019, Americans ranked Big Pharma last of 25 sectors in corporate reputation, its lowest net ranking since Gallup initiated the poll in 2001:

The new low in the pharmaceutical industry’s U.S. image comes amid a range of criticisms of industry norms, from generating the highest drug costs in the world, to spending massive amounts in lobbying politicians, to the industry's role in the U.S. opioid crisis… Just after Gallup conducted this poll, an Oklahoma judge ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million for its role in the state's opioid epidemic. Meanwhile, legislators on Capitol Hill are working to rein in the industry's drug prices (McCarthy, 2019).

These stories of the machinations and alleged ethical transgressions of the major pharmaceutical companies are familiar to most Americans, and are regularly reported in the media, including the major US newspapers.

The purpose of this study is to analyze media coverage of the pharmaceutical industry and to determine if it has changed in light of the discovery and development of the COVID-19 vaccines and antiviral drugs and treatments. Specifically, this study identifies and discusses the results of a two-year audit of newspaper coverage of the pharmaceutical industry in a time of crisis and unprecedented industry change caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The top five newspapers in the US as defined by circulation were analyzed over a 24-month period centering on March of 2020, the beginning of the pandemic lockdown. All front-page articles and editorials pertaining to the pharmaceutical industry were identified and content analyzed to answer the following research questions:

RQ1.

How has the volume of coverage of Big Pharma in the leading US newspapers changed from the 12-month period before the March 2020 pandemic lockdown (hereafter referenced as pre-lockdown) to the 12-month period after the March 2020 pandemic lockdown (hereafter referenced as post-lockdown)?

RQ2.

In separate analyses of both headlines and articles over the two-year period, has the tone of the coverage changed? Are headlines and/or articles more favorable to the industry post-lockdown?

RQ3.

What are the ten most prominent issues covered in articles on the industry pre-lockdown compared to post-lockdown?

RQ4.

What are the implications of the audit for researchers, executives and managers in the pharmaceutical industry?

Literature review

The tarnished reputation of the pharmaceutical industry is long-standing and enduring in the eyes of the public. This unfavorable perception can be attributed to many issues including questionable pricing policies, unscrupulous marketing of drugs by some companies, such as Purdue Pharma’s role in the ongoing opioid crisis, as well as an overall lack of transparency by pharmaceutical companies. Other efforts by “Big Pharma” that were intended to target therapies more specifically for better patient treatment, such as the categorizing of diseases with their own International Classification of Diseases 10th Revision Clinical Modification, have been interpreted as ways to sell more drugs instead of enabling better health-care insurance coverage as claimed (American Medical Association, 2022).

Public perception of the industry as a whole and corporate reputation in particular are of significant interest to pharmaceutical companies. Rindova et al. (2005) defined corporate reputation along two dimensions: stakeholders’ perceptions of a corporation’s quality attributes and the degree to which a corporation receives recognition in the media. More recently, Panico et al. (2014) linked media coverage with corporate reputation.

Considering these two dimensions of reputation – perception of quality and media coverage – it is not surprising that the pharmaceutical industry has ranked poorly. The 2017 Global Pharma RepTrak research project found that trustworthiness is the single most important driver of a pharmaceutical company’s perceived quality reputation (Ivanov, 2018). Big Pharma had its lowest-ever trust rating in the USA at just 38% in Edelman’s 2018 Healthcare Trust Barometer, putting it firmly in the distrusted category (Bulik, 2018). After its initial contributions during the onset of the COVID pandemic, however, the pharmaceutical industry garnered a nine-point increase in trust (Bushak, 2021). Despite this improvement, the pharmaceutical industry still remained in the “distrusted” range. Similarly, a national Harris Poll survey found that “what differentiates companies and reputations today is a company’s character, which is underpinned by trust” (Segal, 2021). It stated that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, only 32% of Americans had a positive opinion of the pharmaceutical industry. After vaccines helped to counter the severity of the pandemic, however, the number of Americans with a positive opinion nearly doubled to 62%.

In terms of media coverage, the second dimension of corporate reputation, prior studies have examined the impact of being in the news on public perception. Kleinnijenhuis et al. (2015) found that extensive media coverage about the economy led to more negative evaluations of the economy. Jonkman et al. (2020) found that “more (media) visibility may lead to negative associations by the public, simply because people have become accustomed to the notion that more news implies more negative news”. Comparing the impact of positive and negative news reports, this study found that the effect of negative news was three times larger than the effect of positive news. Jonkman et al. (2020) also examined the buffering role that prior reputation may have on the damaging impact of news coverage. Results suggest that negative news is less damaging for companies and industries holding more positive prior reputations, such as Lego and Disney.

Looking more specifically at media coverage of the pharmaceutical industry, Sillup and Porth (2008) analyzed newspaper coverage of ethical issues in the pharmaceutical industry over a two-year period in 2004 and 2005, finding that the tone of the news was “predominantly negative and increasing in frequency, more than doubling” over the time of the study. The topic most frequently covered in the news at that time was drug safety, due in part to the rise and fall of Merck’s Vioxx®. After drug safety, the topics of drug pricing, data disclosure, importation/reimportation of drugs, clinical study design and marketing restrictions were most frequently covered. Not surprisingly given this list of topics, the coverage was often critical of the positions taken by the industry and its trade association, PhRMA.

More recently, Pampulevski et al. (2020) studied the “sentiment” of electronic newspaper coverage from 2014 to 2016 to investigate its potential relationship to the public perception of five top pharmaceutical companies. Of the 797 articles analyzed, the majority (63%) was assessed as neutral with the remaining articles almost twice as likely to be negative (24%) as positive (14%). The most frequently reported topics were mergers/acquisitions, corporate restructuring and stock prices/financial results. Other “categories” or topics included transparency of pharmaceutical industry data, lack of drug efficacy and innovation. The authors concluded that the five pharmaceutical companies “were represented similarly across newspapers… However, on analysis of all nonneutral articles, all categories were assessed as negative with the exception of finances/stocks/profits”.

Ivanov (2018) contends that when the public has low awareness and direct experience of a company, the impact of media coverage on the public perception of the company may be even more pronounced. Perhaps this was the case when Moderna, a little-known company prior to becoming a leader in the development of the COVID vaccine, went from obscurity to acclaim. This favorable shift in opinion was anticipated and is consistent with Meijer and Kleinnijenhuis’s (2006) findings from The Netherlands examining the influence of business news on corporate reputation by focusing on analyzing the tone of two different types of news reports – success/failure news and support/criticism news. Supportive news about the success of the company, not surprisingly, raised awareness and improved that company’s reputation

To put the media’s coverage of pharma into perspective, it helps to consider the media’s own trust issues with the public. In short, public trust of the media has eroded. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer report shows that public trust in the media is only 45% in the USA, a drop of three percentage points from 2020, placing the media in the “distrust” category. Globally, trust in all information sources is at record lows with traditional media, such as newspapers, at only 53%, a six-point decrease from 2020 (Ries, 2021). Furthermore, 61% of respondents agreed that the media is not doing well at being objective and non-partisan. Only 35% of respondents rated journalists as a very credible source of information about a company (Ries, 2021). This continues a trend reported in the 2017 Edeleman Trust Barometer that trust in the institutions of government, business, media and NGOs all continued to decline, with media declining the most (Ivanov, 2018).

Contributing to this distrust of both the pharmaceutical industry and the media is recent public discussion about the conflicts of interest in health-care journalism. Many journalists are aware of pharma’s attempts to gain positive attention by buying placement within the nation’s health-care news. Additionally, it is well documented that the National Press Foundation has accepted drug company funding for journalism training (Schwitzer, 2020).

Research methodology

The top five US newspapers as defined by circulation – The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times (Agility, PR Solutions, 2021) – were audited over a two-year period from March 1, 2019 through February 28, 2021. Year 1 in the study is the 12-month period before the start of the pandemic lockdown from March 1, 2019 to February 28, 2020. Year 2 runs from March 1, 2020 through February 28, 2021.

A two-stage process was used to identify articles included in the study. First, using electronic searches on the Nexis (Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times) and ProQuest platforms (Wall Street Journal and New York Times) and based on a set of keywords, all articles that appeared either as a front-page story or on the editorial page during the period of the study – an indication of major news and public sentiment – were included in the initial sample. Letters to the editor were excluded. Second, all articles that passed through this screen were then read and analyzed to determine if they pertained to the pharmaceutical industry. Those that did were retained for the study; others were eliminated from the sample. This approach yielded a combined total of 493 front-page articles and editorials over the two-year period.

For each article, the headlines were analyzed first and categorized as positive, negative, or neutral toward the industry. For example, headlines classified as negative include “Rising Mistrust of 'Warp Speed' Vaccine May Prolong Pandemic” (New York Times, July 19, 2020) and “Nearly 80 Million Children at Risk as Virus Halts Vaccinations Against Other Diseases”, (Los Angeles Times, May 26, 2020). Examples of positive headlines include “A Ray of Hope in the Pandemic; The Preliminary Results from a COVID-19 Vaccine Trial Look Good, But There's a Long Way to Go Yet” (Los Angeles Times, Nov 10, 2020) and “Big Rival Drugmakers Unite to Make Shots” (Wall Street Journal, Feb 24, 2021). If a headline was neither positive nor negative toward the industry or if it was unclear that the headline pertained to the industry, it was classified as neutral.

Next, each complete article was analyzed to determine whether it took a positive, negative or neutral position toward the pharmaceutical industry. For example, any article that highlighted the progress of the vaccine development process or the success of clinical trials was deemed positive. In contrast, an article discussing high drug prices, the opioid crisis or concerns about drug safety were designated as negative. Those articles that focused on the industry without taking a favorable or unfavorable position were classified as neutral.

Finally, the issues discussed in each article, such as drug pricing, the status of vaccine development, interactions with the FDA and drug or vaccine safety were identified and categorized. Many of the 493 articles covered two or more issues and were categorized accordingly.

Results

The amount of coverage

The volume of coverage of the industry by the five newspapers increased dramatically from Year 1 (pre-lockdown) to Year 2 (post-lockdown), more than doubling from 143 articles to 350. To confirm that this one-year spike was indeed an outlier, we examined the longer-term trend, as shown in Figure 1. Using the same research methods to include an article in the study, the average number of articles in the four years preceding the lockdown was 138.5 compared to 350 articles post-lockdown. Clearly, the newspapers increased their focus on the industry after the emergence of the virus.

Taking a closer look at the changes as shown in Table 1, the increased coverage is true of all five newspapers but with different patterns of change. Starting from a relatively low base of 15 articles in Year 1, USA Today more than quadrupled its coverage and the Los Angeles Times coverage more than tripled in Year 2. Both the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal more than doubled their coverage in Year 2. The New York Times published 48 articles about the industry in Year 1, the most of any of the five newspapers, but that number increased to only 60 in Year 2, a much smaller increase than any of the other newspapers. In fact, in Year 2 only the Los Angeles Times published fewer articles on the industry than the New York Times. By comparison, the Washington Post published 36 articles in Year 1, second only to the New York Times, and increased its coverage to 93 articles in Year 2, the most of any of the outlets. Table 1 also shows that the increase in coverage was more pronounced on the front page compared to the editorials. The total amount of front-page coverage increased over 160% compared to the increase in editorials of 121%.

The focus of coverage

In addition to the amount of coverage, the topics reported on shifted over the two years. Table 2 shows the results of this analysis, comparing the top ten issues reported on in Year 1 versus Year 2 and the frequency of their coverage. The list below Table 2 provides examples of the top ten issues identified in Table 2. Eight of the top ten issues in Year 1 carried over to Year 2. The two issues that dropped off the list from Year 1 were articles focusing on generic drugs, and marketing and sales incentives and practices within the industry. The two new issues that emerged to replace those issues on the list in Year 2 are the development and deployment of the COVID-19 vaccines, and clinical study design and sponsorship.

The COVID-19 virus was on the radar screen in Year 1, placing fifth on the list. These articles typically reported on the emergence of the virus, including a description of the virus and its symptoms and were primarily focused on events and conditions outside the USA, particularly in China. Looking further at the top issues in Year 1, they are issues that are familiar to the public and to executives in the pharmaceutical industry, including opioids, high drug prices, research and development of new drugs and drug safety. The opioid crisis is the top issue on the hot button list before the lockdown. These articles reflect the heightened awareness and tragic consequences of opioid addiction, document the extent of the crisis, its alleged causes and the status of lawsuits against and settlements with opioid manufacturers, distributors and retailers. The opioid crisis dominated the news pre-lockdown, with almost 40% of the articles (57 of 143 articles) reporting on the issue. High drug prices in the USA placed second on the Year 1 list. More than one out of four articles (27.3%) on the pharmaceutical industry that we tracked pre-lockdown discussed the high price of drugs.

As the virus emerged in the USA and the threat became more real, the focus on it intensified. As shown in Table 2, COVID-19 jumped from fifth place and 26 articles in Year 1 to second place and 138 articles in Year 2. This issue is separate and distinct from the COVID-19 vaccine issue that emerged in Year 2 to become the top issue post-lockdown. While articles on COVID-19 described the virus, articles on COVID-19 vaccines described the development of the vaccine to counteract the virus. Many articles addressed both of these issues, reporting on the case counts of the virus as well as the progress on the vaccines. Not surprisingly, COVID-related topics dominated the news in Year 2. In fact, the top four issues in Year 2 were all COVID-related. Articles discussing pharma company interactions with the FDA and the FDA approval process ranked third on the list followed by articles focusing on drug and vaccine safety. High drug prices remained on the list in Year 2 but the focus dropped from 39 articles to 25.

Another issue that remained on the Year 2 list but dropped off in frequency is worth noting. Opioids dropped from the top spot pre-lockdown with 57 articles to eighth place and 20 articles on the post-lockdown list. Sadly, this was not due to a crisis averted or even to any progress on combatting the opioid crisis. To the contrary, the Wall Street Journal reported that the USA recorded its highest number of drug overdose deaths in the year that corresponds to this study’s post-lockdown period, over 100,000 deaths. This was a 29% increase from the pre-lockdown year. About three quarters of these deaths were attributed to opioids, mainly fueled by bootleg versions of fentanyl, according to the CDC and the Wall Street Journal article:

The pandemic intensified opioid problems in many ways, from increasing isolation among people trying to maintain their sobriety to complicating treatment, according to advocates for drug users and those in recovery. The pandemic has also been a major draw on resources and attention for public health authorities, who are still trying to manage COVID-19 (Kamp and Wernau, 2021).

The intense focus on COVID seems to have overshadowed coverage of the opioid crisis which was found to have worsened during the pandemic (Sillup et al., 2021).

Examples of the top ten issues covered:

  • Opioids – opioid use and misuse, lawsuits, settlements relating to opioids

  • COVID-19 – the virus, its symptoms, case counts

  • COVID-19 vaccines – development and/or distribution of the vaccine

  • Drug safety – reports of drug safety or side effects

  • High drug prices – the pricing of drugs; programs or attempts to cut drug prices

  • Clinical study design and sponsorship – study design, protocol, treatment of patients (e.g. placebo), payments for studies and/or sponsors of studies

  • Marketing and sales incentives – regulations or guidelines governing marketing or sales of pharmaceuticals

  • R&D for new drugs – efforts to discover new drugs other than for COVID

  • Generics – faster approval and/or access to generics

  • Interactions with the FDA – the FDA drug approval process, criteria or required time to approve new drugs

  • Medicare/Medicaid coverage for drugs – issues related to drug coverage

  • Health-care reform – Affordable Care Act or related reforms

The tone of coverage: headlines and articles

As discussed above, each headline and each article in our data set is separately categorized as positive, negative or neutral from the pharmaceutical industry perspective. Headlines are often all that consumers read or remember and can be influential in shaping public perceptions. As shown in Table 3, most headlines are neutral in tone toward the industry, either because the reader would not know that the headline applies to pharma (e.g. “How I Found A Small Dose of Agency” New York Times, September 18, 2020) or because the headline takes neither a decidedly positive nor negative stance toward the industry (“A Vaccine Progress Report” Wall Street Journal, July 23, 2020). While there is little change in the percentage of neutral headlines over the two-year period, there is a dramatic shift in the positive-negative split. Headlines during Year 1 were almost four times more likely to be negative than positive toward the industry (36.5% negative to 9.8% positive). This changed during Year 2 after the lockdown, when headlines were more likely to be positive (26%) than negative (19.4%). The last column of Table 3 shows the spread between positive and negative headlines for the two years. The spread is defined as the difference between the percentage of positive headlines in a given year and the percentage of negative headlines. In Year 1 the spread is a negative 26.7 (−26.7), meaning that negative headlines outweighed positive headlines by 26.7 basis points. In Year 2 the spread flipped to a positive 6.6 points.

Results of the full-text article analysis reveal several patterns common to the headline analysis and some key differences. In terms of similarities, first, like the headlines, many of the full-text articles take a neutral tone toward the industry; the proportion of neutral articles remained relatively unchanged from Year 1 to Year 2 (Table 4). Pre-lockdown, 35.4% of the articles were neutral toward pharma compared to 33.1% of the articles in the year after the lockdown. Second, the articles, like the headlines, were largely negative in Year 1 and flipped to positive in Year 2.

While the negative to positive trend was common to both headlines and articles, the magnitude of the reversal was even more pronounced for the articles. Before the lockdown, articles were 2.6 times more likely to be negative than positive to the industry (46.8% negative and 17.8% positive). After the lockdown, articles were 42.3% positive and 24.6% negative. Looking at the spread (i.e. the difference between positive and negative articles over the two years), Year 1 was negative 29.0 and Year 2 was positive 17.7. Thus, the swing from Year 1 to Year 2 for the articles is +46.6 compared to the headlines which is +33.3. These results are shown in Table 4.

Another difference in magnitude between the headlines and articles is the neutral percentage. Headlines are more likely to be neutral than articles, mostly because they are more general (and not understood to be related to the industry) or because the headline takes no clear positive nor negative position. In other words, full-text articles are more likely than headlines to be negative or positive toward the industry. This is true for both years of the study.

An article analysis by newspaper shows that pre-lockdown, four of the five newspapers tended to be more negative than positive toward the industry (Table 5). Only the Wall Street Journal, noted for its pro-business stance, published more positive (35%) than negative (30%) articles about Big Pharma before the lockdown. This results in a Year 1 spread score of +5.0 as shown in Table 6. After the pandemic lockdown, these results flipped with four of the five newspapers reporting more positive than negative articles. Only the Los Angeles Times remained more negative than positive in Year 2 of the study with a spread of negative 1.7.

The spread scores shown in Table 6 report the difference between the proportion of positive and negative articles by newspaper for each of the two years. The swing scores report the magnitude of the shift in tone from Year 1 to Year 2. The Wall Street Journal, by a wide margin, was more positive toward the industry in both years of the study. The Washington Post and USA Today were the most negative in Year 1 but both shifted to positive in Year 2. The tone of articles in all five newspapers trended positive in Year 2 as shown by the positive swing scores for each newspaper. Even the Los Angeles Times, the only newspaper with a negative spread in Year 2 as noted in Table 6, was considerably less negative in Year 2. The USA Today and the Washington Post recorded the largest changes in the tone of their articles, with swing scores of 63 and 51.5, respectively.

Discussion

This analysis of leading US newspapers documents the change in reporting about the pharmaceutical industry over a two-year period coinciding with the pandemic lockdown. During this time period, newspaper coverage shifted dramatically from issues that had mostly negative associations for Big Pharma, such as high drug prices, sales incentives and off-label use, to those with positive associations, such as vaccine development and clinical evaluations. There was so much emphasis on COVID and vaccines that other issues of importance, such as the opioid crisis, were overshadowed. Sillup et al. (2021) found that the social isolation that accompanied COVID quarantines actually intensified the opioid crisis during the same period that this study found a decrease in coverage of the crisis.

When the tone of the coverage was assessed, there was a comparable number of neutral headlines in both years but, noticeably, the proportion of positive headlines more than doubled and the proportion of negative headlines was almost halved during the year after the COVID lockdown. Analyses of the full-text articles also revealed a significant positive shift with four of the five newspapers reporting more positive than negative articles. Only the Los Angeles Times published slightly more negative than positive articles after the lockdown while USA Today and the Washington Post recorded the largest positive changes in the tone of their articles, with swing scores of 63 and 51.5, respectively.

If corporate reputation, as defined above (Rindova et al., 2005), is a function of the public’s perception of a company’s quality attributes and the amount and tone of media coverage received by a company, these results are indeed good news for pharmaceutical companies and, by extension, for the industry as a whole. One would expect that the results of this study, specifically, the increased volume of coverage of the industry after the lockdown and the more positive tone of that coverage, would help to explain the results of the Harris poll discussed above indicating that favorable opinions of the pharmaceutical industry jumped from 32% pre-pandemic to 62% in 2021. One question for pharmaceutical executives and public relations managers is how to sustain this improved reputation. This is discussed in the following section.

Implications

Pharmaceutical companies need to take action to address their tarnished image. The results of this study suggest one way that is possible. As Ivanov (2018) notes “the media can have a disproportionate impact on your company’s reputation”. This study reveals how that media coverage can cut both ways – it can damage or bolster a reputation.

Industry advisors have often emphasized the messaging or communications side of reputation management:

[…] managing reputation in the pharmaceutical industry, therefore, requires a strategic approach to corporate communications and media relations, which takes into account the changing context of media consumption and the recent trends in healthcare communications (Ivanov, 2018).

And indeed, this is good advice. But the results of this study suggest that it is not just what you say and how you say it but what you do that matters. This is consistent with the point we made above; that is, corporate reputation depends in part on the public’s perception of the company’s “quality attributes.” We are living in unusual (pandemic) times and, thankfully, pharmaceutical firms performed remarkably well in a short period of time to deliver safe and efficacious vaccines and medicines to combat the virus. Firms cannot count on a crisis to enhance their reputations – but they can and should stay focused on their missions, which all emphasize innovation and advances in health care. Firms cannot control media reports but this study suggests that they can influence the tone of that coverage by continuing to make a positive difference in the quality of health care and finding solutions to ongoing health-care challenges. Absent these types of public health advances, the media will tend to focus on negative coverage associated with practices that alienate the public, such as high drug prices, and lack of access to pharmaceuticals and health care.

The findings of this study may also have implications for policy-makers and regulatory agencies such as the FDA, suggesting a review of the processes for approval of new medicines. The FDA plays an important role in safeguarding the public from unproven drugs and health-care interventions. While it is unrealistic and unnecessary that all New Drug Applications (NDAs) be approved under Emergency Use Authorization, these findings do suggest that the FDA can operate more efficiently when dealing with NDAs. These findings challenge the FDA to search for ways to streamline the drug approval process and to reduce the cost of the Prescription Drug User Fee Act which averages about $3m for applications requiring clinical data (Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act Amendments, 2022).

The findings may also have implications for the media, especially newspapers which still reach millions through their electronic and print formats. The media needs to address its own trust issue as discussed above. In addition, the media needs to recognize its impact on corporate reputation. Big Pharma has made itself an easy target for negative coverage because of many of the practices and hot button issues identified in this study. Big pharma has also made enormous positive contributions to public health and advances in science and medicine. Both need to be recognized.

Finally, this study has implications for researchers. This study sheds light on the impact of media coverage on the pharmaceutical industry in a time of crisis. Future studies could examine the impact of media coverage on specific measures of corporate performance such as stock price and ratings of corporate trust. Similarly, researchers could focus on the mitigating influence, if any, of corporate messaging on both positive and negative media coverage. This research could also be extended to other industries with corporate reputation challenges, to compare and contrast media coverage of pharma and, for example, Wall Street, Big Tech and Big Oil.

Conclusion

This study documents changes in media coverage of the pharmaceutical industry based on an analysis of the top five US newspapers, by comparing the 12-month period leading up to the March 2020 COVID pandemic lockdown and the 12 months after the lockdown (n = 493 articles). From a low pre-pandemic perception and a last place ranking of 25 business sectors in a Gallup Poll, the focus shifted to Big Pharma’s tangible contributions to contain the pandemic and reduce the strain on health-care resources. Media coverage increased substantially and turned dramatically more favorable in the tone of both headlines and articles. This favorable shift was also observed in the type of issues reported.

As mentioned earlier, these findings have implications both for the stakeholders in health-care delivery, and for the media. Optimistically, the pharmaceutical industry can continue to garner positive newspaper coverage with emphasis on helping to contain COVID. In addition to the Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines already available, Gilead is increasing its manufacturing capability of Veklury® (Remdesivir). Meanwhile, Merck has partnered with “small pharma’ company, Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, to have their synthetic nucleoside derivative, Molnupiravir®, approved and Pfizer has had its antiretroviral, Paxlovid®, (nirmatrelvir + ritonavir) approved (Burgos, 2021; Gumbrecht et al., 2021). This trend is encouraging and the basis for continued favorable media coverage.

Figures

Number of articles per year

Figure 1.

Number of articles per year

Number of articles per newspaper

  Year 1: Pre-lockdown Year 2: Post-lockdown  
Newspaper Front Page Editorial Total Front Page Editorial Total % Change
USA Today 8 7 15 28 34 62 313.3%
Wall Street Journal 16 13 29 49 28 77 165.5%
New York Times 30 18 48 42 18 60 25.0%
Los Angeles Times 6 9 15 46 12 58 286.7%
Washington Post 26 10 36 59 34 93 158.3%
Total 86 57 143 224 126 350 144.8%

Frequency analysis of coverage: top 10 issues

Year 1: Pre-lockdown Count Year 2: Post-lockdown Count
Opioids 57 COVID-19 Vaccines 209
High Drug Prices 39 COVID-19 138
Interactions with the FDA 30 Interactions with the FDA 131
R&D for New Drugs 27 Drug Safety 73
COVID-19 26 R&D for New Drugs 46
Drug Safety 14 High Drug Prices 25
Generics 11 Clinical Study Design and Sponsorship 23
Medicare/Medicaid Coverage for Drugs 11 Opioids 20
Healthcare Reform 10 Medicare/Medicaid Coverage for Drugs 13
Marketing and Sales Incentives 9 Healthcare Reform 13
Note:

*Some articles address more than one issue

Headline analysis

Year Positive (%) Negative (%) Neutral (%) Spread (%)
Year 1: Pre-lockdown 9.8 36.5 53.7 −26.7
Year 2: Post-lockdown 26.0 19.4 54.6 +6.6

Article analysis

Year Positive (%) Negative (%) Neutral (%) Spread (%)
Year 1: Pre-lockdown 17.8 46.8 35.4 −29.0
Year 2: Post-lockdown 42.3 24.6 33.1 17.7

Article analysis by newspaper

  Year 1: Pre-lockdown Year 2: Post-lockdown
Newspaper % Positive % Negative % Positive % Negative
USA Today 14.6 58.1 50.0 30.7
Wall Street Journal 35.0 30.0 54.6 18.2
New York Times 11.4 46.3 35.0 31.7
Los Angeles Times 21.3 50.0 27.6 29.3
Washington Post 11.7 55.7 33.3 25.8
Total 17.8 46.8 42.3 24.6

Spreads and swings by newspaper

Newspaper Year 1 Spread Year 2 Spread Swing
USA Today −43.6 19.4 63.0
Wall Street Journal 5.0 36.4 41.4
New York Times −34.9 3.3 38.2
Los Angeles Times −28.8 −1.7 27.1
Washington Post −44.0 7.5 51.5

References

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Further reading

Edelman Trust Barometer (2021), “Global report trust in technology”, available at: www.edelman.com/sites/g/files/aatuss191/files/2021-03/2021%20Edelman%20Trust%20Barometer%20Tech%20Sector%20Report_0.pdf (accessed on 29 April 2022).

Acknowledgements

The authors wish to thank Cindy Slater, Business Reference Librarian, and Summer Scholar Program Research Assistants Kerry Faust and Lauren Stwalley, all of Saint Joseph’s University, for their support.

Corresponding author

Stephen J. Porth can be contacted at: sporth@sju.edu

About the authors

Dr Stephen J. Porth is a Professor of Management at the Haub School of Business, Saint Joseph’s University (SJU), Philadelphia, PA, where he recently received the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching. He serves as the Senior Editor of the Journal of Jesuit Business Education, and as a Research Fellow at the Center for Church Management at Villanova University. Dr Porth served for 17 years as Associate Dean and Executive Director of graduate programs in the Haub School of Business and has chaired three academic departments at SJU. Dr Porth serves on several governance boards, including on the Board of Directors of Nutritional Development Services, Hoops 4 Hope Philadelphia and the Colleagues in Jesuit Business Education. He is a former trustee on the Board of Sacred Heart Academy, Bryn Mawr, PA.

Dr George P. Sillup is an Associate Professor in the Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Marketing Department and Fellow in the Pedro Arrupe Center for Business Ethics and the Institute of Catholic Bioethics at Saint Joseph’s University. Prior to transitioning to academia in 2004, he worked in the diagnostic, pharmaceutical and medical device industries where he held positions from salesman to COO. As a professor, Dr Sillup conducts research on different facets of health-care delivery, such as non-pharmacologic intervention to nursing home residents impaired by dementia. He and his colleagues recently published a book, Opiods: A Prescription for Crisis, and an article in the International Journal of Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Marketing entitled “Gender Differences in the Medical Industries’ Payments to Physicians: A Systematic Review.” Dr Sillup earned his undergraduate degree from the U.S. Military Academy and Wilkes University and his graduate degrees from Drexel University and the Fielding Institute.

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