Selling stem cell claims via sponsored TV news – “horribly wrong” health news

TV brain drainThe segment on the WFAA-TV, Dallas, Good Morning Texas program, was headlined “The latest on the investigational use of stem cell therapy for a number of IRB approved disorders.”  A more apt headline would be, “The latest on how health care entrepreneurs sell their wares to an unsuspecting, uninformed public – with the help of local TV.”

The segment was sponsored by a local stem cell center, which was disclosed, albeit briefly, at the very start of the segment. The interviewee was Dr. Bill Johnson of Innovations Medical Stem Cell Center in Dallas.  The tone of the interview, the questions, the fawning lack of scrutiny – the entire softball of paid-for promotional puffery – is one more reminder (as if we needed another) of the sad state of local TV news and local morning show programming.  And no surprise: it follows none of the recommendations we recently offered for journalists to avoid hype when communicating about stem cell research.

Good Morning Texas is sometimes described as a morning entertainment program.  But the interviewer, Shannon Powell Hart, is listed on the WFAA website as an “award-winning journalist.”

She begins her “interview” with a very non-journalistic statement: “I’m so excited about this….”

Don’t submit that for any journalism awards.

But let’s be clear:  this isn’t solely about the interviewer.  The bigger issue is WFAA-TV selling its local air time in a way that could easily mislead the audience into thinking this was independently vetted news. And since vetting didn’t take place as money changed hands, there was questionable information conveyed by the station.

Bioethicist Leigh Turner of the University of Minnesota was the first to comment on this episode, writing on Twitter, “Stem cell clinic marketing hype courtesy of ABC’s Dallas affiliate.”

In an email, he told me of his concerns regarding the vast number of “stem cell protocols” that the company touts for conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Crohn’s disease, fibromyalgia, COPD, congestive heart failure, multiple sclerosis, peripheral neuropathy, and seemingly dozens of others. He noted that according to the clinic website, the cost to patients for such  interventions begins at $7000.

What is most concerning about Innovations Stem Cell Center’s marketing claims is that there is not yet conclusive evidence of the safety and efficacy of such “stem cell” interventions. At the very bottom of the home page for Innovations Stem Cell Center is a link to a disclaimer. Part of that disclaimer states, “We do not claim that these treatments work for any listed nor unlisted condition, intended or implied.” In contrast, in the sponsored television segment Shannon Powell Hart refers to the “stem cell therapies” available at Innovations Stem Cell Center and Dr. Johnson refers to stem cell interventions that are safe, effective, and promote healing. A viewer of this infomercial might conclude that Innovations Stem Cell Center offers safe and efficacious stem cell interventions for a wide range of clinical indications. There is a large gap between the marketing claims made in this segment and the current state of stem cell research.

The interview began with the “journalist” interviewer asking, “Who oversees the use of stem cells?” – in what struck me as a rehearsed, planted question.  The answer did nothing to dissuade me from that perception. Dr.  Johnson said:

Well that’s a really great question (my note: of course it is if it’s exactly what you wanted to be asked) because some of the controversy and discussion right now is over the fact that a lot of stem cell work is not regulated….We are under the review of an investigational review board or IRB.

But Leigh Turner, PhD, reacted to me:

First, IRBs are Institutional Review Boards rather than Investigational Review Boards. Both Dr. Johnson and interviewer Shannon Powell Hart use the wrong term, prompting the question of whether they know what “IRB” really means.

Second, Dr. Johnson suggests that the protocols were prepared by the IRB. This claim is extremely confusing because institutional review boards review protocols submitted by researchers rather than write them for scientists.

Third, viewers of this segment would have no way to know how easy it is to obtain IRB approval for so-called “studies.” While IRBs can provide rigorous oversight of clinical research, the bar to obtaining IRB approval can be quite low. “IRB shopping” makes this problem particularly acute. In this context, it is worth drawing attention to a 2012 FDA inspection of the institutional review board reportedly used by Innovations Stem Cell Center

Fourth, contrary to Dr. Johnson’s claim, a great deal of “stem cell work” is indeed regulated.

In a long note, Turner listed many questions about any interactions between Johnson’s center and the IRB and the FDA.  About those questions, Dr. Turner said:

They are not the kind of questions that are addressed in infomercials, and they certainly aren’t addressed in this sponsored segment on Good Morning Texas.

He noted that a brief disclaimer, disclosing that the “interview” was sponsored, appeared for only about 10 seconds of the 261 second segment, and that many viewers might not realize that they are watching an advertisement for the clinic rather than a straight news interview.

At a minimum, talk shows, morning shows, and other programs should have visible disclaimers throughout such ‘informercials.’ However, in this case there is a much larger ethical question. Should WFAA8, an ABC affiliate in Dallas, accept funding from a business that appears to advertise unproven and unapproved stem cell interventions for which conclusive evidence of safety and efficacy is lacking? How is this station serving its viewers by baking a commercial into one of its programs and allowing the representative of a local “stem cell clinic” make claims that are at no point challenged or subjected to any critical scrutiny?

Turner was not alone in his criticism.  I asked each of the following people to respond.  They were unanimous in their criticism.

Journalist Deborah Potter, executive director, NewsLab, Washington, DC:

The disclosure in the WFAA segment was upfront.  But it’s still not enough.  I think a chyron (an onscreen text at the bottom of the screen) disclosing that the segment is bought and paid for should be up throughout the entire segment.  And I’ve long argued that these kinds of programs should be hosted by non-news people. Sigh.

Journalist Andrew Seaman, Society of Professional Journalists ethics committee chair:

When it comes to sponsored content gone horribly wrong, I think you just found the poster child.

Airing this type of segment, which is nothing more than a commercial, calls into question every other segment and news stories aired by that station.

More specifically, I’m very concerned that the station would decide to do a segment like this on such a sensitive health issue. Obviously, I’m biased as a health reporter, but I think being a paid cheerleader for a medical center that harvests and inject stem cells is different than – for example – a beauty salon. From the segment, it seems like stem cells harvested from fat can fix almost any condition, but a quick search on PubMed Health for systematic reviews suggests the evidence is thin – at best. The people in WFAA’s viewing area deserve better.

Jonathan Kimmelman, PhD, biomedical ethicist, McGill University:

Adopting the form of a news story to telegraph journalistic independence is, in a moral sense, as deceptive a practice as lying about being journalistically independent. Here’s one way to think about this. In the realm of product sales, branding trademarks are used to mark a company’s product as distinct from their competitors.’ Presenting paid for content in the form of a news report is akin to stealing the “brand” of independent journalism. It not only harms those who are deceived – it also diminishes the “brand” of independent journalism.

The International Society of Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) has issued guidelines for public communications about stem cell based science. [Disclosure- I chaired the task force that revised these guidelines.] Our guidelines clearly warn against overstating the evidence behind stem-cell based interventions. They also call out journalists as having responsibility for ensuring balanced and critical reporting of medical claims.

Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law & Policy – and a frequent critic of the way stem cells are promoted to the public:

What an incredibly frustrating interview. The interviewee makes it sound like these “therapies” are routine, effective and completely safe.  He used the word ‘treatment’ several times – as if it is obvious that these products are efficacious – referenced use by professional athletes and supports claims with anecdotes.  Classic strategies used by those seeking to market unproven therapies. There is, of course, interesting research going on in many of the areas referenced in this report, but we are far from the point of routine clinical application.  Grrr….

When Caulfield tweeted his disgust with the segment, tweeting, “Ugh.  Evidence?” – the TV interviewer, Shannon Powell Hart, tweeted in response, “Thanks for watching!  I will just say something nice back to you.  I am not a medical professional.”  Which speaks volumes, yet says nothing pertinent to the criticism.  She doesn’t need to be a medical professional to do her job on an interview like this.  She needs to be a journalist, following journalism ethics.  Again, though, the bigger issue is with her employer. The employer put her in that role of being promoter for sponsored content. That employer is TEGNA, a media company that used to be called Gannett, but which is now spun off as a separate entity.

Deborah Potter wrote 10 years ago about Gannett stations turning morning news programs and news-talk-interview programs into pay-for-play arrangements.  Potter was prescient at the conclusion of her article, “For Sale: Advertisers make more inroads on news.”

“So brace yourselves. When it comes to selling out the news, we may not have seen anything yet.”

This little episode is clearly not a first for Good Morning Texas. On the stem cell center website, it states: “Dr. Johnson is a regular contributor to Good Morning Texas,’ the leading morning show in the DFW area.” What a convenient way to consistently deliver self-promotions.

And the station sells its time to other unfiltered, unvetted health care news.  I found a YouTube video from last year, featuring a sponsored segment with a spine center.  The words “WFAA News 8” appear on the studio set in the background. The lines between journalism and entertainment seem to be continually blurred in this relationship. And it blurs the vision of anyone waking up to Good Morning Texas.

Disclosure:  I was the medical reporter for WFAA for about 4 years way back in the late ’70s.  I think it’s a safe bet this wouldn’t have happened under the station management, and especially under the news management, of that time.

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Comments (1)

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August 1, 2016 at 12:14 pm

Painful to watch. Just reinforces our decision to drop cable last year (here in the DFW area) so we don’t have to subject ourselves to this type of drivel (nor support it financially). I can equivocally state that we don’t miss local television news one bit.
By the way, the company touts that it uses stem cells to treat fibromyalgia. Interesting in that there is still — sadly — no consensus on the cause of fibromyalgia. So what exactly are they treating?