Health News Review

Former WFLA-TV Tampa news director Forrest Carr wrote me a long e-mail criticizing my BMJ article of last week, in which I reported my analysis of 3 top TV stations’ performance in covering (or not covering) health care reform or health policy issues in the 2004 election year.

It was an exhaustive analysis, in which I studied 326 hours of newscasts — the stations’ showcase late newscasts. But Carr wrote:

“Your conclusion that the local TV news media “don’t want to cover” health policy stories based on a study of this one time period is not sound. WFLA-TV, for instance, does 5 hours of news each weekday. To make a broad conclusion about the station’s overall journalistic efforts on any topic based on a study of that one unique 11 p.m. half-hour program is like studying the metro section of your morning newspaper to the exclusion of all else, then concluding on that basis that the newspaper doesn’t cover national news. It just doesn’t hold up. To claim that WFLA-TV covered “only three stories in ten months on Medicare, totaling less than 2.5 minutes” is flat wrong.”

No one in TV news would dispute that their late newscasts are their showcases — their money-makers. They want to put their best product on the air in those newscasts. Yet very little news about health policy or health care reform appeared in 10 months of these newscasts during an election year. The data don’t lie, mislead or distort.

Carr also wrote: “…as long as we fund TV news the way we fund it now — through advertising dollars awarded in proportion to the size of the audience attracted — you’re going to get what we’ve got, specifically, newscasts that balance public service against the business needs to grow ratings, with business needs usually taking priority. Even if you do manage to somehow force changes in the program to present more of the kind of content you and a thousand and one other special interest constituencies want and demand, unless you somehow manage to find a way to tie people to their chairs, you still can’t make the public sit through it — at least not in large numbers.”

TV viewership has declined in most analyses. Maybe it would rise again if news departments — and the corporations to whom they answer — addressed vital citizen issues instead of some of the pablum they now put on the table.

I respect Forrest Carr as one of the good guys in TV news. He is smart and he cares. But it is the job of journalists to mirror and address the needs of the population. And health care reform is one of the biggest such needs. I don’t represent any special interest constituency. But there are 40-million Americans without health insurance and millions others lost in a tsunami of confusion over Medicare and prescription drug testing/marketing/pricing issues. They deserve more serious journalism in the newscasts which TV stations hold up as their best.

TV stations don’t own the airwaves. They’ve been granted a license to serve the audience. On this issue — one of the most important facing the nation — my analysis showed a failure to earn the license.

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