Most of the press releases are about dodgy claims by alternative medicine practitioners. But you’d never know it’s originally paid content.
Asia News International or ANI is one of India’s biggest news agencies that aggregates news bytes and sells them to news channels and websites. Articles that first appear on ANI and other news agencies are reprinted by several news sites that syndicate their content.
What do you do if you want to feature on one such news site?
You first approach a public relations company like NewsVoir with your press statement. This statement can have absolutely anything, ridiculousness is no bar. Once you are done writing, NewsVoir will send it to ANI, which will dutifully publish it as it is.
Soon, news sites like LiveMint, Business Standard, Yahoo News, the Print and other clients of ANI will publish it under ANI’s byline. Some of these won’t mention that this is a sponsored article and so, your press release will become indistinguishable from an article published in these otherwise reputed news websites.
Let us look at some such successful examples.
On April 16, ANI published a press release titled “Announcing India’s first clinically tested medicine for Covid-19 management and treatment AAYUDH Advance”.
Aayudh Advance, a concoction of 21 herbs including lavender and oregano, is three times more effective than Remdesivir, the press release proclaimed. Not only that, Aayudh Advance “starts where vaccines stop” and is processed using “quantum technology”.
These tall claims were backed by a poorly conducted trial in just 60 asymptomatic and mild Covid-19 patients, in which this ayurvedic mix failed in eight out of 10 endpoints.
Yet the press release was published without editing – standard practice for ANI content – in Business Standard and Yahoo News. Based on the ANI copy, media houses like Aaj Tak, Dainik Bhaskar, Divya Bhaskar and Zee News published articles eulogising this purported miracle drug.
The claims of Aayudh Advance being three times superior to Remdesivir was attributed in the press release to the government’s Translational Health Science & Technology Institute. But once the news went viral, the institute “strongly denied” the claims and called it “fake news”.
Immediately after, the Ayush ministry also called Aayudh Advance’s claims misleading and asked the Gujarat Food & Drug Control Administration to take “strict action” against its makers.
After this backlash, ANI deleted its press release – though an archived copy is available here – without any explanation. Aaj Tak later updated its Aayudh Advance story with the institute’s clarification.
Most of these press releases are harmless advertising pamphlets. But some are also absurd, like this announcement by Delhi’s JTR Astrological Research Institute offering a new “corporate astrology” consulting service.
These press statements are the wild west of misleading and fraudulent claims. For instance, a recent press release in ANI talks about a self-proclaimed doctor, Biswaroop Roy Chowdhury, who has “discovered” a new technique called cardiac compression (which is unrelated to CPR) that can “cure clinical death” if administered four minutes after a patient’s demise.
There is no scientific basis for this claim but it was still featured in Business Standard, Yahoo News, Yahoo Finance, Outlook, the Week and the Times of India. None of these “reports” mentioned that Chowdhury is also a world-renowned Indian conspiracy theorist who preaches that Covid-19 is a population control tool and that vaccines don’t work.
Yet another ANI press release features Bhaskar Sharma, a homoeopathic practitioner who was purportedly felicitated by former US President Donald Trump. An obvious lie, because both the awards that are mentioned in the press release are free online courses and challenges funded by the US government. Yet it was diligently carried by Business Standard, Live Mint and Yahoo News.
ANI features several sponsored press releases by homoeopathic and ayurvedic practitioners. Consider this one titled “Homeopathic protocols of Dr Kalyan Banerjee's Clinic, one of the safest alternative treatment for cancer”. Unsurprisingly, it appeared in Business Standard.
Another press statement says that Banerjee has distributed two lakh courses of homoeopathic formulation to prevent Covid-19. This article is filled with many other scientifically unverified claims, such as how “thousands of patients have shown the benefits of homoeopathy interventions in the management of chronic kidney disease/kidney failure and hypothyroidism, two very common diseases which have no resolution in conventional medicine”.
Several large scale research studies have repeatedly found that homoeopathy simply does not work.
These unchecked sponsored articles have several downstream consequences.
First, for a fee, anyone gets the bragging rights of being featured on a reputable news website. Second, these “news pieces” carry tremendous advertising potential. One good article can legitimise any dubious claim. Third, news websites cite other websites. This creates an instance of circular reporting, where several articles are published based on a tainted original source. We saw this in the Aayudh Advance case.
These pay-to-publish pieces also help in establishing credibility. If your company’s name appears on high-ranking websites like news portals, it’s more likely to show up when users search for the name on Google. Also on the basis of these press releases being passed off as news, Wikipedia pages for controversial figures are edited and the coveted blue tick is secured on sites like Twitter and Instagram.
There are several online marketplaces like OG users that offer a “PR article” in news websites like Yahoo Finance, Hindustan Times and Zee News for a few hundred dollars. These articles help a user get verified even when they don’t meet the relevant “notability” criteria required for influencers and celebrities.
All press statements published by ANI end with this text:
“This story is provided by NewsVoir. ANI will not be responsible in any way for the content of this article.”
This blanket disclaimer is present in around 8,000 such press releases provided to ANI by NewsVoir which is, as we discussed before, a public relations firm. NewsVoir is just one such company, several others exist. Along with ANI, other news agencies like PTI and IANS also routinely carry such dodgy press releases.
When these press releases are reprinted, some sites like Business Standard mention clearly that they are sponsored articles. Others like Yahoo News and LiveMint don’t bother.
While carrying a paid piece, news aggregators like ANI should explicitly state whether they receive remuneration in return. And so should all the other portals that republish them.
A two-line disclaimer is not enough to absolve a news agency or news website of their responsibility as long as the content is posted on their website. Also, the current disclaimer on ANI’s website is woefully incomplete. It mentions that the story was provided by NewsVoir, but doesn’t mention that NewsVoir is a PR firm. Most importantly, it doesn’t tell the readers that it was paid to feature that press statement. Some of the best practices for featuring sponsored content include adding a “sponsored” tag in the headline – but no such guidelines exist in India so far.
While paid content often features on television and in newspapers, the internet is a different ballgame. Here, there is no barrier of space. And once published, a press release stays on for perpetuity.
This writer sent detailed questionnaires to ANI and NewsVoir for comments. This story will be updated if they respond.
Update on May 28: Statement from Dr Kalyan Banerjee's Clinic
Dr. Kalyan Banerjee’s Clinic (the “Clinic”) strongly refutes all assertions made towards its work in this article. The Clinic also raises a strong objection to the arbitrary use of the phrase ‘scientifically unverified claims’ in reference to its work which have been made without any attempt being made at inquiring into the existence of evidence or at assessing the quality of evidence. This is strongly indicative of biased handling and assessment of information related to homeopathy by the website.
Over the last forty-four years, the Clinic has earned a position of trust with its patients because of its honest approach, by setting realistic outcomes of treatment and with only the benefit of the patient in mind. It is also known for the efforts it makes to temper expectations and remove the idea of ‘magical cures’ touted by many conventional and complementary health organizations and practitioners.
The Clinic would like to issue a point-by-point clarification on the statements made in this article regarding homeopathy in general and the Clinic in particular.
1. Homeopathy is one of the safest alternatives for the treatment of Cancer.
a. Homeopathic medicines have no side effects. Its use does not cause any adverse reactions. This fact has never been disputed.
b. In the last forty-four years, no reports of adverse effects of homeopathic treatment.
c. Summary analyses and case studies of cancer management at the Clinic were presented during a conference at a university in Agra in 2019.
e. There is currently an ongoing study at the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, involving the homeopathic management of cancers.
f. Evidence for homeopathic medicines involving the management of brain tumors was generated by homeopathic practitioners in India with researchers from the MD Anderson Cancer Centre, Houston, Texas, USA, National Cancer Institute, USA and the National Institutes of Health, USA.
2. ‘Thousands of patients showing benefits in the management of chronic kidney disease/kidney failure and hypothyroidism, two very common diseases which have no resolution in conventional medicine.’
a. In 2019 and 2021, the Clinic presented interim data of ongoing analyses at the Clinic involving two clinical conditions – hypothyroidism and chronic kidney disease.
b. The findings of these analyses were presented at an international conference in April 2019 in New Delhi.
c. Patients have reported improvement in their readings, reduction of hormone replacement, reduction in the frequency of dialysis, delay in beginning dialysis, alleviation of discomfort, and other outcomes all of which constitute ‘benefits’ to the patient.
e. There is no resolution for these conditions in conventional medicine.
3. COVID-19 Prophylaxis Protocol
a. COVID-19 is a new disease entity and research into this is ongoing in all systems of medicine.
b. The three medicines being suggested to aid in reducing chances of contracting this infection are generic, freely available and all interested individuals are free to acquire them from wherever they wish.
d. An independent institutional review board has granted ethical approval for the conduct of the study.
e. The data set for this analysis is available to all on a third-party data repository.
f. At every instance, all individuals have been repeatedly advised to follow all public health advice at all times.
For all the above points, 1, 2, and 3:
A very high number of cases of each of these conditions are managed at the Clinic regularly.
Limitations of the analyses or studies and caution regarding the interpretation of results was discussed at length at the conferences, and during all interactions with members of the media.
Generic homeopathic medicines used in every instance were listed so that society may benefit from this information.
Several news organizations have carried items related to this and other work.
4. ‘Several large-scale research studies have repeatedly found that homeopathy simply does not work.’
a. Homeopathy is the second most popular system of medicine in the world.
b. While the above-quoted sentence is often repeated this generally indicates that the person making this statement has not looked at the studies or at the quality of evidence generated by these studies. Objective researchers trained in evidence-based medicine are quick to notice all the flaws in these large-scale studies which make their conclusions unreliable.
c. The last large-scale review (Shang et al, 2005) contained serious methodological flaws.
d. Another criticism of these so-called ‘large-scale studies’ is that the method of comparison is patently flawed. The studies use different remedies for different participants. This introduces a high level of heterogeneity severely limiting the external validity of any results.
f. After a petition filed with the ombudsman, the Australian Government admitted and released a suppressed large-scale 2012 review which concluded that there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that homeopathy is effective in the treatment of several conditions. The council involved in this study had suppressed this report and immediately commissioned a new review which had concluded that homeopathy does not work.
g. There are many studies that have shown that homeopathy is effective. Some resources and articles that indicate the clinical effectiveness of homeopathy and provide a physiological explanation of the mode of action of homeopathy are referenced.
h. There is a widely acknowledged existence of strong publication bias against homeopathy. This means simply that it is less likely that positive results related to homeopathy will be published.
i. Any attempt at conducting research involving homeopathy or the dissemination of its results should not be presumed to be unscientific. The presence of evidence does not prevent individuals or organizations from seeking to conduct further research into a system of medicine that is so widely used.