The black hole of TV health news ethics

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Another chapter has been written in the sorry series of unethical practices by local TV news operations in covering health news.

Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute criticizes the Radio-Television News Directors Association and a local Maine TV station – and rightly so. Excerpt:

“I disagree with Radio-Television News Directors Association Chairman Ed Esposito’s decision to allow WGME-TV to keep its Edward R. Murrow Award for a series of stories it produced about a medical team’s work in China.

Maine Foundation for Cardiac Surgery paid for WGME’s nine-day trip to Shanghai, which the Portland, Maine, station clearly disclosed at the beginning of each segment of its project, “The China Journey.” The stories were well-told, and the photojournalism and editing was strong. …

The station’s heart was in the right place, but it should have put its wallet there too. Not doing so now gives stations nationwide an out when the boss comes knocking with a free trip to cover a worthwhile story.”

Many stations may also make the claim that “their heart was in the right place” when they also accept medical industry money for sponsored segments that feature only the sponsors’ experts – without disclosing that on the air.

RTNDA needs to wake up to how its own code of ethics – a strong document – is only a meaningless piece of paper if it isn’t discussed and embraced by its members.

On Tompkins’ site, the Maine news director responds: “The foundation NEVER tried to influence our coverage in any way.”

They paid for the trip and got the coverage, didn’t they? And that was coverage they would not have received if they didn’t pay for the trip. To me, that’s pretty clear influence.

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Andrew Holtz

April 23, 2009 at 4:28 pm

In addition to the ethical sinkholes that come with accepting free trips or other favors from sources, the warping of editorial content is frightening.
If the stories were worth covering, then the expenses should be worth paying for.
Of course every newsroom has a budget and has to make choices about what to cover, but those decisions… as with every editorial decision… should be made without outside influence. And free plane tickets are a whopper of an outside influence.
One more thing… I’ll bet that behind closed doors the charity is smiling about their “Return on Investment.” I assume donations increased after the stories aired, perhaps covering much more than the cost of travel for the news crew.
Will other charities decide they have to start competing for media attention with payola? So much for serving the public interest without fear or favor.