FCC report on info needs of communities highlights health journalism problems

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Gary Schwitzer is the founder & publisher of HealthNewsReview.org.  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.

The Federal Communication Commission’s Working Group on the Information Needs of Communities has published a report, “Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age.”

Among the bright spots identified:

• Fueled primarily by broadband-enabled innovation, the news and information
landscape is more vibrant than ever before. Digital technology is creating a world of
opportunity to keep the public informed in ways unimaginable just a few short years ago.

• The disruptive impact of the Internet has enabled an unprecedented free exchange of
ideas and information. Breakthroughs in hyperlocal news and citizen journalism are on the
rise, empowering individuals with a wealth of new information to better inform decisionmaking and engender more accountable government.

But among the many problems and issues addressed in the report, problems in health journalism were unavoidable.

Weakened coverage of health care topics was one of the issues attributed to newspaper staff cutbacks.

“Even when beats have not been eliminated entirely, beat reporters have become responsible for covering more territory and “feeding the beast” by tweeting and writ¬ing blog posts in addition to their regular stories. These days, many newspapers reporters spend less time interviewing sources and more time producing copy. They have less time for enterprise journalism of the sort that anticipates problems and uncovers information that those in power want to conceal.”

TV news:

“…several long-standing maladies of local news have persisted, or even worsened, including: minimal coverage of local government, insufficient in-depth reporting, and a strong emphasis on crime coverage. Although they are not in the majority, a disturbing number of stations have allowed advertisers to dictate news content or in other ways blurred the lines between journalism and advertorial.”

TV health care news was singled out for scant coverage of important local issues including health care. And for its ethical problems:

“Frequently the so-called ‘health reporter’ fronts the health news but is using handouts from the health industry or using material from one of the feeds coming into the TV station.”

One of the key recommendations the task force made addresses a criticism I’ve made for years about local TV health news practices.

Key recommendation: Discourage “pay-for-play” arrangements – in which TV stations allow advertisers to dictate on-air content without disclosing to viewers – by requiring online disclosure of such arrangements.

The report reminded readers of one of the classic cases of such a “pay-for-play” arrangement:

“In January 2008, Glen Mabie resigned from his position as news director at WEAU in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, over a coverage deal in which a local hospital would pay the station to air two health stories twice a week on topics selected from a list provided by the hospital. The only people the reporters could interview for those stories were personnel at that hospital, which would also have first crack at interviews for any other health stories the station did. Mabie says that station management removed the exclusivity provision after he and other staffers complained. But he maintains that the executives told them to “wipe the big J for Journalism off their sweaters because that is not the way it is anymore.” The station later abandoned the plan, and the president of the company that owns the station made a personal appearance at the station to announce that they would not implement the deal.”


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June 9, 2011 at 6:48 pm

You’re right! Digital technology should be helping to keep the public informed on Health care issues but instead it soundsas if the media is taking the easy way out when it somes to health news reporting…