Quote my report, but don’t quote me: Why don’t some biotech analysts give interviews?
Today, I’m pleased to offer a guest post by Kathleen Raven — @sci2mrow on Twitter — an up-and-coming science writer and recent graduate of the University of Georgia, where she earned a graduate degree in conservation ecology and is scheduled to complete one health and medical journalism in May 2013. A freelancer, Raven just completed an internship at Nature Medicine. While working on a piece for the journal, she had a vexing experience that gave rise to this post.
In July, an Associated Press story—posted on Bloomberg/Businessweek—quoted a research report written by pharmaceutical analyst Jeffrey Holford at Jefferies & Co., who predicted that Eli Lilly’s Alzheimer’s drug would fail in its late-stage trials before the company released the final results. (It did.) So this summer, while I was reporting a quick Nature Medicine story about the Indianapolis-based drug giant’s five recent phase 3 trial failures, I wanted to get Holford’s take.
I called the investment company’s New York office as a member of the media and was promptly given Holford’s phone number. I dialed and Holford picked up:
I’m sorry, I don’t talk to the media.
Puzzled, I explained that I’d found him through media coverage. He agreed that his reports were quoted by media outlets all the time. But I don’t talk to reporters, he repeated, and wished me luck.
Any news reporter worth her salt will insist on quotes from a phone interview in order to advance a story and provide additional insight based on events that may have happened since a report’s release. So down the list I went.
Terry Ruffolo, media relations director at Zacks Investment, kindly sent his regrets, explaining that only the company’s macro analysts—those who could comment on the stock market as a whole, and not those who track individual pharmaceutical companies—talk to journalists:
Would you like me to send a report?
David Risinger of Morgan Stanley quickly emailed me back:
Unfortunately, I cannot participate—my apologies.
Risinger and the handful of other analysts I called that day offered solid reasons on why they couldn’t talk with me about Lilly’s stock market performance. Some said they consulted for the drug company and this conflict of interest would have prevented honest commentary, even if they had not signed off an agreement stating they would not talk to the media. Another explained he simply didn’t have time to give an interview. Yet another potential source gave no explanation and simply hung up.
If a publicly funded researcher or public sector worker eludes a journalist, this is usually noted in the story. However, all of my potential sources worked for private companies. I wanted their insight, but taxpayers didn’t support their salaries, so they were not obligated by the “public’s right to know” to grant me an interview.
Nearing my deadline, I contacted two analysts often quoted in pharmaceutical investment news coverage: Tim Anderson of Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. (who gave an excellent phone interview for the article) and Mark Schoenebaum with ISI Group in New York. Both analysts promptly returned my calls. I appreciate their accessibility and willingness to talk with the media.
For future stories, though, I would like different perspectives. When I asked Ed Silverman, editor of Pharmalot, about my dilemma, he explained that some analysts just may not feel comfortable talking with a journalist they don’t know. A veteran in the field, Silverman regularly interviews analysts for his site devoted to the pharmaceutical industry.
Some of these analysts met me in person years ago at conferences. They may not always like what I write, but they know who I am.
His comments reminded me that though the pool of analyst sources may seem small, the lesson for journalists is simple: It pays to keep searching for strong, independent comment.