TV news directors make another bad deal on health care news

Gary Schwitzer is the founder & publisher of  He worked in local TV health news in Milwaukee and Dallas before joining CNN.  Then he saw the light and left TV news altogether.

In this economy I don’t begrudge anyone’s ability to make a buck. There are companies that make a lot of bucks selling “breakthrough” TV health news segments to TV stations to fill air time. Presumably the stations don’t think they need their own fulltime health reporter, can’t afford to hire one, and/or find it cheaper to pay for this “off the shelf” TV health news product from an out-of-town provider.

The Grade The News website gave a thorough description of the practice with one company. Excerpt:

“The company, Ivanhoe Broadcast News, allows local reporters to put their names on stories they didn’t report, film or write — without mentioning Ivanhoe. Stations also are permitted to omit geographical information, giving viewers the false impression that the stories were locally produced and the patients and doctors quoted in the stories could be their neighbors.”

The company’s signature product is called “Medical Breakthroughs reported by Ivanhoe.” More power to entrepeneurs like Ivanhoe who make money (actually a lot of money) doing this. That’s a business decision.

Shame on the stations that take this “quick and dirty” route to health news coverage. That’s a journalism ethics decision.

I wrote recently about a local TV health reporter who blogged about this practice – only to discover that the station news director hijacked the reporter’s blog and deleted the blog entry. Pretty clearly this is not something stations are proud of – nor should they be.

Well Ivanhoe is back in the news and this time it’s with the blessing of the entire TV news industry’s professional group – the Radio-Television News Directors Association, which announces:

“In celebration of Ivanhoe Broadcast News’ 30th anniversary, Ivanhoe and The Radio and Television News Directors Foundation have joined forces to provide two new training opportunities for journalists.

RTNDF and Ivanhoe are offering a post-graduate internship for a recent journalism graduate. The three-month internship will provide professional training in health reporting at Ivanhoe headquarters in Orlando, Florida, in the summer of 2009.

The second opportunity is for a working reporter or producer at a television station, who will receive a two-week fellowship to travel to the Ivanhoe headquarters to focus on health and medical reporting.”

When my friend and fellow former CNN medical correspondent Andrew Holtz heard of the RTNDA-Ivanhoe partnership, he wrote to me:

“The first question that came to my mind was: What are they going to teach… how to do single source stories where only the providers of a product or service are interviewed?”

Indeed, when you look at stories on the Ivanhoe website, you find single source stories with one spokesman from one institution touting one idea. No independent analysis. In fact, the online stories post a PR contact at each institution.

So it’s a win-win for almost everyone:
• The health care institution gets the publicity they covet.
• The TV station can say it covers health news – even though it really doesn’t.
• Ivanhoe makes more money.

The only loser? The audience – which gets “just add water” TV news slipped into the newscast as if it is the most important news of the day for that community. And it isn’t.

Why doesn’t RTNDA partner with the NIH Medicine in the Media workshop or the MIT Science Journalism Fellowships or with the Association of Health Care Journalists or with our project? (I wrote to RTNDF three times in 2008 without getting a response.)

Any one of the above organizations could help improve the state of TV health news – and help TV reporters assess questions of evidence, of cost-effectiveness, of harms (instead of always just the benefits of a new idea), and of conflicts of interest in health care and in story sources.

The RTNDA/RTNDF deal sends the wrong message to the industry: a message that promotes “breakthroughs” instead of explaining to audiences that breakthroughs are rare and that health care news demands more careful scrutiny at the local level every day.

2008 was a bad year for TV health news, with Eau Claire, Wisconsin news director Glen Mabie quitting over a decision his station had made to partner with a local medical center for delivery of that medical center’s health care news. RTNDA was mostly silent on these quite common TV station arrangements with local hospitals.

2009 could be better. It’s not off to a great start.

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mike apo

January 2, 2009 at 10:53 am

RTNDA..heheheh..this group of stumble bums has been a trade association and drinking club for years now. When was the last time RTNDA took a stand or lobbied against or decried ANY of the horrible things that have happened to journalism. The fact that RTNDA has now sold out to a sponsor, actually, should have been expected.
Or, as the famous quote goes:”Gambling here?? Rick, I’m shocked!!”

John P

January 28, 2009 at 10:04 am

Thanks for taking the time to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic. If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your blog with more information? It is extremely helpful and beneficial to your readers