Health News Review

“TV newscasts are increasingly seeded with corporate advertising masquerading as news — and the federal government wants to do something about it,” reports the Washington Post.

It’s an issue that may have arisen more often with health news than with any other topic.  A quick (and probably incomplete) scan of this blog shows we’ve written about it every year for the past 5 years:

2007: http://www.healthnewsreview.org/2007/07/paidfor-tv-heal/
2007: http://www.healthnewsreview.org/2007/12/goodbye-columbu/
2008: http://www.healthnewsreview.org/2008/01/ethical-news-di/
2009: http://www.healthnewsreview.org/2009/10/another-example/
2008: http://www.healthnewsreview.org/2008/02/another-case-of/
2009: http://www.healthnewsreview.org/2009/04/the-black-hole/
2010: http://www.healthnewsreview.org/2010/04/another-breach-of-ethics-with-major-market-tv-health-news/
2011: http://www.healthnewsreview.org/2011/03/many-old-ethical-questions-arise-about-new-st-louis-tv-news-hospital-partnership/

Trudy Lieberman wrote about it in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2007: http://www.cjr.org/feature/the_epidemic.php

You can read the FCC proposal at: http://www.fcc.gov/encyclopedia/media-bureau-2011-headlines but you must scroll down to October 27, 2011 and look for the headline:

Modernizing Television Broadcast Public File Availability (the file labeled FNPRM in Word or Acrobat formats)

The document states that last summer an FCC working group released “The Information Needs of Communities” or INC report.

“The INC report recommended requiring that when broadcasters allow advertisers to dictate content, they disclose the “pay-for-play” arrange­ments online as well as on the air in order to create a permanent, searchable record of these arrangements and afford easy access by consumers, com­petitors and watchdog groups to this information.

…The INC Report discussed examples of “pay-for-play” arrangements at local TV stations, where “advertisers have been allowed to dictate, shape or sculpt news or editorial content.”  The INC Report expressed concern that this practice could have negative implications for the community’s trust in local TV. The INC Report recommended that the Commission require that the on-air disclosures for such “pay-for-play” arrangements, which are already required to be disclosed on-air, be available online, perhaps as part of the public file, in order to create a permanent, searchable record of which stations use these arrangements and to afford easy access by consumers and watchdog groups to this information.”

I support the FCC proposal. If anything, I think it doesn’t go far enough.

I know that health care journalists who work hard to convey health care news and information accurately, in balance, and completely are very upset about these broadcast practices.  They jeopardize the credibility of all journalism.

Remember:  these corporations that own the broadcast stations do not own the airwaves.  The public airwaves belong to the public.

ADDENDUM:

Sadly, this is a radio issue as well, and I’ve tracked some of these practices:

2005:  http://www.healthnewsreview.org/2005/08/is-ap-radio-inv/

2011: http://www.healthnewsreview.org/2011/11/a-radio-journalism-ethics-issue-that-often-involves-health-care-products/

Of course, we’ve seen some newspaper examples as well: http://www.healthnewsreview.org/2008/03/newspaper-lets/

Comments

Andrew Holtz posted on January 6, 2012 at 11:48 am

I hope online disclosure would be more effective than on the air announcements.

I helped Trudy Lieberman track a TV newscast here in Portland, OR for her CJR article. Certain medical news segments were preceded by an announcement that it was “brought to you by” one of the major regional hospital chains. Yet I doubt viewers understood that these segments didn’t necessarily conform to the usual editorial standards.

In the segments I recorded, no one who was associated with a competing hospital chain was interviewed… while medical news reports that weren’t sponsored featured a more eclectic mix of experts.

If online disclosure allows interested viewers to better track the influence of sponsors on newscast content… and then they use that information to shame the station and (I would hope) prompt the sponsor and station to abandon the corrosive practice… then it may have value. But the experience with on the air disclosure is not encouraging.

And to add one more dismal note… even when there is no contractual arrangement giving a sponsor favored access, some stations (and print and online news organizations) still give advertisers preference and soft treatment in news stories. These unprofessional practices are not disclosed to viewers on the air under the current rules, so I doubt a requirement for online reporting would have any greater effect.

Ultimately, professional journalists and interested members of the public have the responsibility to demand that news reporting be done independently and without favor. The business model of most media organizations rests on audience size. Owners can be remarkably responsive when they find that they can attract larger audiences (and make more money) by doing the right thing.

Elaine Schattner posted on January 9, 2012 at 3:41 pm

Hi Gary,
I agree that the proposed FCC regulations don’t go far enough.