"The Epidemic" of shoddy TV health news

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Sometimes my own critics have said that I am unfair to those who practice television health news. They imply that because I once worked in that field I am bitter in my criticisms.

Well, veteran journalist Trudy Lieberman never worked in TV news, but you must read her comprehensive indictment of current TV health news practices in the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.

She writes about news stations accepting pre-packaged new stories created by health care behemoths such as the Cleveland Clinic or the Mayo Clinic, creating stories that are “a hybrid of news and marketing, the likes of which has spread to local TV newsrooms all across the country in a variety of forms, almost like an epidemic. It’s the product of a marriage of the hospitals’ desperate need to compete for lucrative lines of business in our current health system and of TV’s hunger for cheap and easy stories. In some cases the hospitals pay for airtime, a sponsorship, and in others, they don’t but still provide expertise and story ideas. Either way, the result is that too often the hospitals control the story. Viewers who think they are getting news are really getting a form of advertising. And critical stories—hospital infection rates, for example, or medical mistakes or poor care—tend not to be covered in such a cozy atmosphere. The public, which could use real health reporting these days, gets something far less than quality, arms-length journalism.”

Read the full story. Then you’ll see that it’s not just me who thinks that much of TV health news is in critical condition, possibly creating more harm than good.

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Comments (4)

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helen chickering

March 28, 2007 at 12:40 am

I was disappointed to see that my comment in Trudy Lieberman’s recent article on the unhealthy relationships between hospitals and local TV news (CJR January/February) was taken out of context.
Lieberman writes that, “At one end of the customer-service spectrum, NBC seems to use the Cleveland Clinic material as a kind of story-idea service. Helen Chickering, a medical reporter for NBC News Channel, which sends stories to NBC affiliates, says the network cannot use prepackaged Video News Releases, known as vnrs, in stories, but will make its own interview requests based on them. “The only way we can connect is with an interview request,??? she says of the rules about dealing with vnr providers. ”
Lieberman is correct in noting that the network does not use video news releases. My quote, however, was in reference to story pitches and press releases, which we do receive from the Cleveland Clinic and many other medical institutions, government agencies, etc. I am sure our medical news desk is not unique in that sense. We do not receive video news releases from the Cleveland Clinic.
In addition, I never stated that we use video news releases (or even press releases) as a story idea service. My statement was that if we come across a press release that features an interesting angle or an expert who would be appropriate for a story we are pursuing, we will contact the institution and request an interview.
The article made some very good points that should have a positive impact on the quality of television health news. However, I was disheartened by the misuse of my interview and with the many generalizations used in the article.
In addition, I was concerned to see that Lieberman fronted a TV news panel on this topic at a recent conference of the Association of Healthcare Journalists – that included hospital PIOs interviewed in her article – who spoke out against the issue – the editor of CJR – and only one TV producer. Seems a bit out of balance – don’t you think?
Here’s the panel info:
Keeping local TV health news accurate – and honest
Does an ethical danger zone exist when fiercely competitive hospitals meet TV stations looking for cheap and easy stories? Hospitals have found they can go beyond providing experts and story lines to providing ready-to-use footage and completed scripts. Panelists will explore at what point such relationships become lazy journalism and cheat viewers of important coverage.
Trudy Lieberman, director, Health and Medicine Reporting Program, City University of New York
L.G. Blanchard, manager, UAB health system media relations – quoted in CJR
Thomas McCormally, public information officer, Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics, Kansas City – quoted in CJR
Gerri Shaftel, medical producer, KTTV-Los Angeles
Moderator: Mike Hoyt, executive editor, Columbia Journalism Review.
I embrace and support the message of Lieberman’s article. I am really disappointed in the tactics used to prove this point.
Sincerely, Helen Chickering
Medical Correspondent
NBC News Channel

The Publisher

March 28, 2007 at 9:27 am

I asked Trudy Lieberman to respond to Helen Chickering’s comments. Ms. Lieberman advised that she was heading out the door for international travel and would not be able to comment until she returns. I will post her comments when I get them.
The publisher