Sociologists in Britain who examined how the media framed stories about a new wakefulness-promoting drug learned that after a sweet honeymoon period, articles on the drug turned much more somber. It’s a media trend that drugs such as Valium, Prozac and Viagra helped set and raises some serious questions about the role of the press when it comes to medicine and the pharmaceutical industry.
The researchers focused their study on the British media’s handling of a drug called Modafinil, which is sold under the brand name Provigil by Cephalon, a Pennsylvania-based pharmaceutical company. The Food and Drug Administration and its British counterpart have approved the drug to treat narcolepsy, or excessive daytime sleepiness. They later gave it approval for treatment of excessive sleepiness due to obstructive sleep apnea and for late-night workers dealing with excessive sleepiness. The researchers combed six national British newspapers for articles on the drug from 1998 to August 2006.
They found that early reports on the drug primarily touted its medical benefits, with feature stories on how the drug had transformed the lives of people with narcolepsy. Over time, however, the narcolepsy narrative gave way to fairly glowing stories about how Provigil was being used beyond its original intent to treat people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and how it could be used for a wider range of fatigue issues.
The upbeat coverage started to slide in 2004 and 2005 as the press rang the alarm bell with articles about Provigil being prescribed to healthy people to fuel the new “24-hour society.” The stories talked about how party people, truckers, students, jet-lagged travelers and businessmen with a big presentation had been turning to Provigil to keep them bright-eyed. The British press also brought the drug into the military realm with stories about the problems of sleep deprivation for the military and how Provigil could be used to keep pilots and soldiers fighting with little sleep. The final theme focused on its use to gain an edge in sports. These stories mostly focused on track athlete Kelli White, who tested positive for Modafinil at the 2003 World Championships in Paris. White originally claimed that she suffered from narcolepsy, but later admitted she took the drug as a stimulant.
The British media’s coverage of Provigil resembles how other drugs, such as Valium, Prozac and Viagra, were greeted initially with enthusiastic headlines, which later turned sour when unwanted side effects or misuse by doctors or patients became apparent.
The study concludes with some thought-provoking questions about the media’s role when it comes to medicine and the pharmaceutical industry, particularly wondering if the press is bypassing the doctor. It also questioned the fine line between drugs for treatment and for lifestyle enhancement. Lastly also posed ideas about what role drugs should play in a 24/7 society and whether we want to live in a world where sleep is optional.
The lesson: If you’re turning to the media for information on a drug, consider if you’re reading something written during that sunny honeymoon period or later on in the game.