Gary Schwitzer is the founder and publisher of HealthNewsReview.org. He worked in TV news for 15 years, launched the MayoClinic.com website from 2000-1, and taught health care journalism and media ethics at the University of Minnesota. He tweets as @garyschwitzer, or using our project handle, @HealthNewsRevu.
Health care news that is spoonfed by medical centers to local TV news organizations can perhaps do as much harm as good. How? Such “news” can and does mislead readers when the TV station accepting the spoon-feeding doesn’t do any original reporting, doesn’t have anyone on staff trained in how to cover health care research news, and, as a result, provides imbalanced and incomplete information to viewers.
It happened recently when KARE-11, the NBC station in Minneapolis, called it a “medical breakthrough” when Mayo Clinic’s PR department distributed a polished video describing an expedited surgery-and-radiation treatment process for early stage breast cancer.
[Ediitor’s note: It appears that the TV station has now removed the video from its website. An excerpt can be downloaded below.]
“So is this a true breakthrough? Not in my opinion,” wrote Deanna Attai, MD, a breast cancer surgeon at UCLA, a past president of the American Society of Breast Surgeons, and one of our regular contributors. What was described in the video is something Dr. Attai has been using for years.
Dr. Attai does call it “a nice demonstration of how with carefully coordinated multidisciplinary care, treatment can be delivered in a shorter period of time which certainly is an advantage to patients.” But that would fall into the category of a refinement of process and procedure – not a breakthrough, not by her definition or ours.
Mayo didn’t even call it a breakthrough in its PR video. Think about that: a TV station accepts a handout video, broadcasts it as its own story, and then decides to call it a breakthrough.
KARE-11 also conveyed a visual inaccuracy in the story. Dr. Attai points out that the video story, in the scene below, shows the injection of blue dye to map the so-called sentinel lymph node, which will then be removed as part of the procedure and tested for cancer cells. At that point in the KARE-11 reporter’s script, she’s talking about brachytherapy radiation. That’s not what’s going on in the image at that time. It’s misleading and will undoubtedly confuse some viewers and patients. But this is what can happen when general assignment reporters are told to re-package handout video when they – or their editors – don’t really understand what’s going on in the video.
A couple of final notes about troublesome TV news business practices. On the KARE-11 website, we saw the story immediately preceded by a paid commercial from Mayo Clinic. A screenshot appears at right. This is strikingly similar to the issues we raised just last week when the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper juxtaposed a Mayo Clinic ad next to a story headline that went out of the way to mention Mayo.
Can it get worse? You bet. Look at who is listed as the co-authors of the KARE-11 story. Adrienne Broaddus is the KARE-11 reporter who put her name and voice on the story. There was no original reporting by her or the station; it all came from the Mayo handout video. But the other author listed is Dennis Douda, who was dumped by competing TV station WCCO 6 years ago, and who is now a Mayo Clinic PR man, working on videos like the one in question. I have never seen a news organization list as a co-author a PR person for the health care institution that provided the content for the news organization. This is among the most egregious of a long list of local TV news ethical breaches that I’ve seen in my career. I wrote to KARE’s news director asking if she thought this was appropriate. I received an initial response that she would need to look into this and would get back to me. That was four days ago, including the weekend, and I haven’t received any followup message.
This video is part of Mayo’s PR effort, for what they call their “news network.” That news network is made up of whatever news organizations take the handouts and make them look like their own reporting. In a very informal and incomplete search, we easily found newspapers in Philadelphia, Newark, and in Olympia and Tacoma, Washington putting Mayo PR material on their websites. (Graphic below shows examples from four newspapers. Highlighted in yellow is evidence that these all came from the Mayo Clinic.) The true extent of the free commercials is far wider.
Here’s a recap of the ethical issues outlined in this post.
1. Some TV stations and newspapers take handout video or text material from a health care entity such as the Mayo Clinic, fail to do any original reporting or add independent sources, and broadcast it or publish it as if the end product was the result of the news organization’s own independent work. These are examples of news organizations abdicating their responsibility to independently vet claims. The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics states that “Journalists should – Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it.” Who checked or verified anything about the handout PR material in these cases?
2. A TV station – probably not alone in this – on its website, allowed a Mayo Clinic commercial video to run immediately prior to a Mayo Clinic-supplied video story (in essence, one paid commercial and one freebie).
3. A TV station – they may be alone in this – listed as a co-author of a piece the name of a PR man for the Mayo Clinic – on a video supplied by the Mayo Clinic. At least they acknowledged that the video was supplied by Mayo. But the underlying ethical concern of listing as a co-author someone who is paid by the institution being reported on is egregious.
4. A TV station – they are not alone in this – called something a medical breakthrough in a situation where such hype is unwarranted.