Questions about Mayo Clinic deal with Minneapolis TV station

The following guest blog post was submitted by Trudy Lieberman, a veteran health care journalist who, for years, has tracked the cracks in the wall between health care news and health care advertising/sponsorship arrangements.


For months now, every night on the 10 pm newscast from KARE 11, the Twin Cities NBC affiliate, thousands of viewers have heard a message like the following leading into the evening’s sports news:

For a period of time, KARE sports anchor Eric Perkins actually appeared at the beginning of one of these messages, saying, “Tonight in sports….”

“The story every night from the Mayo Clinic’s Sports Medicine Sports Desk,   Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine. Downtown Minneapolis. Schedule an  appointment today.”

Was that a commercial? Or was it part of the sports broadcast? It’s unclear at first, since the station’s anchor/sports director delivered the lead-in just as he would in the newscast. But it was a Mayo commercial, with a member of the editorial team delivering the lead-in.  Did Mayo’s new Sports Medicine Clinic in downtown Minneapolis get naming rights to the station’s sports desk for a good chunk of money handed over to KARE? Is it the latest twist on an unsavory practice that some of us journalists reported on a decade ago—hospitals teaming up with local TV stations to push their brand? Is it a continuation of the march to blend editorial and advertising content in ways that the reader/viewer/listener cannot always discern, further blurring the borders?

Back in 2007 writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, I reported the “new alliance between hospitals and local TV news” then being perfected in markets where TV stations were starving and hospitals were under competitive pressure. The partnerships “take different forms in different cities,” I wrote, “but the deals all too frequently slide across the ad-edit wall.” The economics are much the same today. Arguably the stakes are even higher for hospitals, which are rapidly consolidating with the grand prize going to those that can snag the most customers. That’s where Mayo’s push into sports medicine in the Minneapolis market comes in.

Somehow, though, the Mayo-KARE deal seems different from those in the past where hospitals sometimes supplied canned stories to stations, staffed ask-the-expert programs, and enlisted a well-known anchor to host hospital events. This deal is bolder, more direct, and is not barely sliding over the ad-edit wall but tearing down the wall itself. This “sponsorship” deal – or whatever it is – has been running for at least 6 months now.  As recently as last week (the first video clip above), an announcer introduced the sportscast this way: “KARE 11 Sports! From the Mayo Clinic’s Sports Medicine Sports Desk.”

It’s fair to ask: What is the nature of this deal? How much money has changed hands?  We wanted to find out. For three weeks from May 20 to June 10, I tried to set up a phone interview with a Mayo official. Finally, I put my questions in writing to Rhoda Madson, a Mayo media relations specialist, who replied, “Thank you for your questions, time and Mayo Square & mascotsinterest, but I don’t have anyone for your KARE sponsorship story.”  The Clinic found plenty of time for PR and for dignitaries yesterday (June 17) as Mayo celebrated the grand opening of Mayo Clinic Square, home to Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine and the new headquarters of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Lynx (men’s and women’s pro basketball teams, respectively). It’s worth noting that ribbon-cuttings and other celebrations are the stories hospitals want to talk to the press about. Mayo posted this video on YouTube:

But even though the grand opening of the Mayo center and Mayo Clinic Square was just yesterday, Mayo ads for the Clinic have been appearing across the bottom of local viewers’ TV screens on KARE 11 TV for months, through football season (at left below), basketball season (center), and now into baseball season (right).

all season mayo ads

And when the big grand opening day came, who covered it for KARE?  You guessed it:  Eric Perkins, the same sports anchor who did a lead-in to a Mayo ad!  (Shown at left, below).  That “news” about the Mayo grand opening, was followed by a story reporting on Mayo research for “stopping cancer.”  (Shown at right, below).  Why was that news on the same day as the big grand opening? Was there a new study published? The KARE story didn’t explain.

Mayo groundbreaking

I also wanted to explore the Mayo partnership deal with KARE, so I sent questions to KARE’s news director a week ago. I never got a response.

Should anyone be surprised at the smooshing up of traditional journalism and commercial content given that such marquee media outlets as The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Conde Nast and CNN are creating programs where their personnel work directly with advertisers to create “branded content” the news organizations can use to help boost revenue? On The Wall Street Journal’s blog earlier this month, Dan Riess, an executive VP at Turner Broadcasting, explained, “This isn’t about confusing editorial with advertising. This is about telling advertisers’ stories—telling similar stories but clearly labeling that and differentiating that.”

When Mayo’s ad blitz for the new Minneapolis sports medicine clinic appeared in most media – on mass transit ads, in newspaper ads (Star Tribune below at left), in regional editions of Sports Illustrated (below at right) – it was clear that it was an ad, separate from the news/editorial effort.

mayo ads

But the KARE deal is different – involving a sports anchor doing an intro to one commercial, then other commercials referring to the “Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Sports Desk”, and across-the-screen banner ads appearing during sportscasts for at least 6 months, and now the sports anchor even reporting on the grand opening of a facility that he helped promote by doing the intro to a commercial.

To learn more I turned to John Carroll, a mass communications professor at Boston University, who writes the blog SneakAdtack.com. Carroll was interviewed in a recent Boston Globe story, ” ‘Sponsored content’ brings money, questions.” What he told me is disturbing for those who still believe in traditional journalistic values. The Cuisinart style of content, as Carroll calls it, actually makes it easier for advertisers to break down the traditional skepticism the public has toward commercial content. If you can make advertising look like editorial content, “you’ve overcome the first hurdle of advertisers,” he told me, adding that our tradition of fair play is being eroded.

“It’s old fashioned to say people have a right to know when they are being advertised to,” Carroll said explaining that today’s listeners, viewers and readers “find ads too intrusive, and people want a seamless stream of information. It’s all just content now.” In other words, audiences can’t tell the difference and may not care.

We talked about one more downside of the new journalistic order—what happens to the credibility of news outlets themselves? Carroll didn’t hesitate. “If views and readers think everything is for sale, then the media organizations lose the default credibility their content used to have,” he said. Will that happen to KARE 11 and other outlets which have embraced the melding of news and advertising?

After our conversation, I checked out the code of ethics from the Radio Television Digital News Association, which expects that electronic journalists to:

  • “Determine news content solely through editorial judgment and not as the result of outside influence.”
  • “Recognize that sponsorship of the news will not be used in any way to determine, restrict, or manipulate content.”
  • “Refuse to allow the interests of ownership or management to influence news judgment and content inappropriately.”

Because neither Mayo nor the station would talk about their partnership, we have no idea if the station paid any attention to those ethical canons. My guess is that the station’s need for big revenue and Mayo’s quest for new patients as it enters deeper into the Twin Cities marketplace trump even the slightest ethical nod. In some ways these rules seem quaint considering the spread of Cuisinart content over the new media landscape. Journalism ethics?  C’mon, we have a “newscast” to get on the air!

In the meantime, here are some questions to consider:

  • Dollars: How much did Mayo spend on this deal? How does the move into the Twin Cities boost patient revenues and why is it necessary given Mayo’s national and international reputation for attracting patients?
  • Journalism ethics: Having entered into this sponsorship arrangement with Mayo, how likely is KARE to report, in a tough, investigative fashion, when/if some controversy, some issue, some concern does arise at Mayo?  Or at the newly-opened downtown Minneapolis sports medicine clinic run by Mayo? The seeds of doubt should be planted in viewers’ minds.
  • Level playing field:  How do other health care organizations that have been providing care in the Twin Cities all along feel about all of the publicity – including this TV ad deal – for Mayo’s move onto Twin Cities sports medicine turf?
  • What do those Minneapolis-Saint Paul health care providers think about Mayo’s publicity and the turf move, after watching Mayo get state legislative support just two years ago for its “Destination Medical Center” initiative.  As the Rochester Post-Bulletin reported, the initiative “seeks to transform Rochester into an international destination for health care. That plan includes $585 million in public funding for infrastructure to support Mayo Clinic’s planned $3.5 billion expansion over the next 20 years.”
  • If Mayo eventually dominates the state, what does that mean for the price of care and the insurance premiums all Minnesotans will pay?

But there hasn’t been a lot of news coverage asking or answering these questions.  And don’t look for KARE 11 to lead the questioning.

Mayo ads on KARE website - sports area

 

Addendum on June 19:

  • Blythe Bernard, St. Louis Post-Dispatch health and medical reporter, saw the Mayo “stopping cancer” story referenced above, but she saw it on the USA Today website, and Tweeted:

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Comments (10)

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Paul Levy

June 18, 2015 at 10:23 am

Is it just me, or have we seen a rise in commercialism from Mayo? Not that they need it, because their clinical excellence stands for itself. So why do we see things like that described by Trudy here, and like this: http://runningahospital.blogspot.com/2015/02/dear-mayo-now-lets-look-at-your-ms.html and like this: http://runningahospital.blogspot.com/2015/05/is-it-in-rochester-mayo-or-boston.html?

    Pennedora

    June 19, 2015 at 12:46 pm

    Do you think it might have anything at all to do with the trend of having “platinum-plated” business school grads running hospitals instead of well-qualified physicians or even professed religious (nuns) who may lack the Harvard MBA, but who also have strong business acumen and a genuine commitment to ethical behavior?

      Tony Partington

      June 20, 2015 at 11:58 am

      Pennedora points out a keen facet of (to paraphrase Pres. Dwight Eisenhower) the “Healthcare Industrial Complex.” The disconnect that healthcare administrators (and their administration) have with providers and medical staff is worsening. I do not see it as exclusive to Mayo though. Evidence the fact that Fairview Healthcare (another Minnesota based organization) sent packing their most recent president and CEO, Rulon Stacey. Stacey’s vision of transparency and his “open door” policy which encouraged all employees to speak openly to one another, whether it be up or down the hierarchy, did not sit well with Fairview’s board of directors – administrators who were only comfortable playing their cards close to their vests, so to speak. The same situation seems apparent with the closed door relationship Mayo has with KARE11. A question which inevitably comes to mind though is; why would Mayo want to even chance tarnishing their image by accusations of impropriety and inside trading. These “platinum plated” business grads who seem to, more and more, be assuming administrative powers within healthcare delivery systems (First), have not a clue as to what is faced on the front line by providers and support staff, and (Second) – and perhaps most concerning regarding the health and safety of the patient – their focus seems solely on the bottom line; the business of healthcare sans any of the humanity. Even now, as we are well into the 21st century, the most important element of healthcare is that it still consists of contact and interaction between human beings. If that ends, then the whole picture changes to a grotesque, soulless machination.

    Rodger Garrett

    June 19, 2015 at 2:37 pm

    I very much agree with you about the “symptoms” and with Pennedora about the likely etiology. What concerns me more is that some of the stuff I see on Mayo’s explanatory website pages is way out of date vs. current research. It’s only occasional, but it happens often enough that I have to review the articles before I can forward them to pts anymore.

Mighty Casey

June 18, 2015 at 12:57 pm

Print and broadcast outlets were, in the 20th century, a license to print money. As digital rose, traditional media business models fell, and there’s now a free-for-all for eyeballs, hearts’n’minds, and sponsor cash from sea to sponsored-by-Nike sea. Given that new business model, where any average Joe or Jane can be their own media outlet, big players and small like those IDed above seem to know no bottom when it comes to how far they’ll go to get sponsorship cash. It seems like ethics are now seen as a convenience that news outlets can’t afford …

Brant Mittler MD JD

June 19, 2015 at 10:49 am

This is a well-reported and disturbing, but hardly, surprising report. The horse has been out of the barn for a long time. I did weekly live TV reports for the CBS TV affiliate in San Antonio for 6 years — 1988-94 — and advertising dollars were influential then — but didn’t affect my critical stories. The station could never get any health care entity to sponsor my 3 minute piece because the advertisers didn’t want an independent reporter they couldn’t control. Some stories critical of advertisers were cancelled by the General Manager. Today in San Antonio, the local news stations mostly air laudatory stories pumping up local private hospital systems and “new: tests or procedures and the local medical school — all of whom are big advertisers. There is rarely a critical story about any hospital system — including he VA — in “Military City USA.” Scandals and controversy may occasionally surface in the national media but the local stations — to quote Neil Postman — stick with “fragments of tragedy and barbarism” that play to the mob. One of my former producers who went on to become a member of Congress always advised keeping a pillow handy to throw at the TV when the nonsense and bad programming was aired.

Lane

June 19, 2015 at 11:11 am

An excellent article on the creep away from transparency and into commercialization of health care.
Thank You!
Will share w many…

Karen A. Davis, DO

June 19, 2015 at 12:01 pm

As a physician for nearly 30 years – an ‘old fashioned’ GP (General Practice) physician – it occurs to me that while the reputation of Mayo is indisputably excellent, is it the desire of The Twin Cities to have the current medical providers (both small and large) pushed to competition rather than focused on providing care to the population? Is Mayo Clinic the model for ongoing long term relationships with families and generations? Or more a place to deal with the conundrums and complex patient presentations – consulting and assisting physicians with care for their patients around the country? Is this different from the HomeDepot and Lowe’s coming in and the small town hardware stores not being able to ‘compete’ with the deep pockets? How does this model fit the ‘Patient Centered’ care touted by the “Affordable” Care Act?
As stated in the article, these questions are ones which need to be discussed, and answered before the disappearance of the existing medical community in The Twin Cities.

Chris Johnson

June 20, 2015 at 8:55 am

I doubt Will and Charlie Mayo would have been pleased with all this.

Dr Gayle Eversole

June 22, 2015 at 12:46 pm

Mayo Clinic is doing this in the form of a joint venture with ASU for a med school in Phoenix. What the hype was is a throwback to the 1970s when all health professionals worked cooperatively as a team for the best benefit for our patients. Certainly nothing new but it is being hyped by Michael Crow, ASU President, and a Mayo upper management MD.

I’d just like to see more honesty and credit to a good process that worked for all.