I’m watching local news on my local CBS affiliate, WCCO, the other night.
And I wake up from the daze of crime and creampuff stories to see that there’s a story about the Cyberknife “radiosurgery” system at a local health care provider, HealthEast.
I see brief clips with two satisfied patients, an interview with a HealthEast physician, and hear an unquestioning voiceover about the benefits of Cyberknife. Hmm, I thought. Feels like an ad. Not an unusual feeling, as much of local TV news feels like advertising. But the screen – as seen above – is labeled CBS HealthWatch.
But then up popped the concluding screen of the segment.
Now I figure out that it was an ad. Even though it never says it’s an ad. It was clearly made to look like a news story. It just says “Sponsored by HealthEast.” It was never clear who was delivering the voiceover: a WCCO reporter? Or someone paid directly by HealthEast?
Seven years ago I wrote that “there seems to be a special pipeline between the HealthEast marketing department and WCCO.” So this is not a new issue. Just a new look.
Why does this matter?
How likely is WCCO to ask tough evidence-based, comparative effectiveness questions about a local provider’s technology when that provider is sponsoring segments about the wonders of that technology within the WCCO newscast? What kinds of questions might they avoid? Examples from other media in recent years:
We are sure that some patients have benefited from – and will continue to benefit from – the Cyberknife technology. This post is not a review of the evidence.
Instead, we’re raising a question of the media ethics involved in slipping an ad that looks like a news story into a newscast – at a time when citizens need journalists to help them weigh the “bewildering array of options” before them. Does WCCO have a track record of helping viewers weigh the bewildering array of options? Not that I’ve seen.
The TV news industry’s code of ethics states:
Professional electronic journalists should:
- Gather and report news without fear or favor, and vigorously resist undue influence from any outside forces, including advertisers, sources, story subjects, powerful individuals, and special interest groups.
- Resist those who would seek to buy or politically influence news content or who would seek to intimidate those who gather and disseminate the news.
- Recognize that sponsorship of the news will not be used in any way to determine, restrict, or manipulate content.
So we know that WCCO accepted payment for the HealthEast commercial that looks like a news story. But I have not seen evidence of WCCO reporting tough questions about this health care advertiser’s claims.
WCCO is not alone. We wrote about a Chattanooga TV station’s gushing story. But Minneapolis is ranked something like 15th as a media market…and Chattanooga is something like 87th. And WCCO is a CBS owned-and-operated station. We expect better.
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