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 interest, 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).
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
Addendum on June 19:
— Blythe Bernhard (@blythebernhard) June 19, 2015