Another example of questionable local TV ethics regarding health programming

Gary Schwitzer is the founder & publisher of  Back in the 1970s he worked in local TV health news in Milwaukee and Dallas before joining CNN.  Then he saw the light and left TV news altogether.

A Madison, WI television station has offered to showcase doctors who pay for advertising as the top experts in their fields, according to the AP. Excerpt:

WKOW 27, an ABC affiliate, sent letters to doctors and clinic managers last month soliciting help to create “a local source for credible, consumer information on health specialties.” The letter describing the “unique marketing initiative” didn’t specify when the programming would run, which left some readers believing it would be on news shows.

“We will create the highest possible visibility for each specialty and you will be positioned as the authority in your field,” General Manager Tom Allen wrote in the letter. He added that the “partnerships” would be limited in number and that sales account executives would follow up.

After some recipients made their concerns public, Allen denied that there was a direct link to the news department.

“There is absolutely no suggestion of favorable news coverage by investing in this advertising opportunity,” he said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

Allen said participants would get 30-second on-air “announcements” during commercial breaks for all programs, including the news, that would direct viewers to the station’s Web site to learn more. He said it was similar to an existing initiative involving home improvement contractors and would not involve the news department.

The initial letter did not specify a cost, and Allen declined to give that information. The station plans to give potential participants more information later this month.

Al Tompkins, who leads the broadcast group at The Poynter Institute, a journalism training center in St. Petersburg, Fla., said the wording of Allen’s letter suggested news would be involved. He said the station was allowing doctors to be “the authority” regardless of their background, as long as they pay.

“Stations need the income to keep doing good things and cover news,” he said. “But anything that reinforces an existing perception that content is for sale undercuts everything a serious newsroom works toward.”

Lisa Brunette, a spokeswoman for UW Health, which first publicly criticized the pitch, said it appears to be a “pay for play” in which doctors give the station money in exchange for positive publicity.

“It was striking to us there could even be the suggestion there could be editorial visibility, which is essentially a marketing opportunity,” Brunette said.

UW Health, which includes the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, the children’s hospital and the medical school, will not participate, she said.

The divide between news and advertising is crumbling as media outlets cut their newsrooms and try to find new sources of revenue, said Stephen Ward, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at UW-Madison. He said that as long as WKOW reporters aren’t pressured to use the doctors as sources, “then it’s not as worrisome as it might appear to be.”

Last year, the Association of Health Care Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists warned media outlets to avoid arrangements with hospitals that improperly influence health coverage.

The move came months after the news director for WEAU-TV in Eau Claire resigned after that station reached an exclusive coverage agreement with a local hospital. Nationally, some stations have broadcast video news releases sent to them by companies, nonprofits and government agencies with few changes.

Dean Health System spokeswoman Melissa Wollering said its employees received the letter and have been told to ignore it. Dean, which owns hospitals and clinics in the Madison area, asked the station to stop sending sales pitches to doctors.

On this blog I have repeatedly urged the Radio-Television News Directors Association – which now wants to be called the Radio Television Digital News Association – to toughen its stance on the repeated breaches of ethics being committed by its members when it comes to health news and information.

And if this event turns out NOT to be a news deal, but a non-news programming deal, then I urge the National Association of Broadcasters to do its part to clean up this morass.

Meantime, health care consumers need to be aware of this “pay to be listed as an authority” practice – and caveat emptor.

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