Troubling TV Health News Trends

Gary Schwitzer is publisher of  He has worked in health care journalism for more than 40 years.   He Tweets as @garyschwitzer, or using our project handle, @HealthNewsRevu.

In the February issue of Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), Trudy Lieberman writes about TV 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.”

Some recent network TV segments point to an unquestioning – almost cheerleading – approach to health news coverage.

On March 10, Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s HouseCall program on CNN featured a story on anxiety disorders, and offered one of those handy self-assessments that allows you to diagnose yourself with almost anything under the sun. Gupta said only one in five people with anxiety disorders get help. Then he offered a self-assessment from the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA). He said if you answered yes to any of the questions, you could seek help from your doctor or from ADAA.

He did not mention that the ADAA’s corporate advisory council is made up of drug companies Eli Lilly & Company, Forest Laboratories, Pfizer, Inc. and Wyeth.

On February 6, CNN reported on “ArteFill, billed as the first permanent filler.” CNN said “known side effects are minimal.”

But it’s easy to find the following on the FDA website:

Side effects of ArteFill® include:

* Lumpiness at injection area more than one month after injection

* Persistent swelling or redness

* Increased sensitivity

* Rash, itching more than 48 hours after injection

Let’s allow consumers to decide if those sound “minimal” or not. The story never mentioned that one of the conditions of FDA approval last fall was that a five-year study for safety be done after approval, a clear sign that reviewers were not convinced that all the evidence on safety was yet in.

And NBC hit the trifecta with three recent stories:

Lieberman concludes her CJR article: “…stories about profitable, high-tech, yet often unproven procedures stimulate demand for them, fueling ever-rising health care costs. Local TV health journalism doesn’t often discuss those big issues, or even often take on the smaller stories that together weave a tale of a health care system in trouble.”

And, as you can see, sometimes network TV news isn’t much better. This is a growing concern, one we will continue to analyze on this site.

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