New example of conflict of interest in Mayo Clinic sponsorship of Star Tribune newspaper section

Gary Schwitzer is the founder of HealthNewsReview.org and has been publisher since its launch in 2006.  He taught media ethics and health care journalism at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism & Mass Communication, and now holds an appointment as Adjunct Associate Professor in the UMN School of Public Health. He tweets as @garyschwitzer, or uses the project handle, @HealthNewsRevu.

When it was announced that the Mayo Clinic would sponsor the Star Tribune newspaper’s Science & Health section in 2015, I was interviewed about the announcement, and wrote about it.

All I could do was speculate at that time about some of the potential pitfalls of the newly-announced arrangement, and speak generically about the problems with news organizations “partnering” – with money on the table – with health care entities they cover all the time.

Yesterday’s Star Tribune Science & Health section’s front page provides an actual example of how bad the arrangement looks at times.

 

 

The brief article is a human interest story about a Texas Rangers pitcher who was treated for ulcerative colitis.  It was written by a solid journalist, Jeremy Olson. So there’s no beef about the content of the main, albeit brief (< 500 words), story or the work of the writer.  But we offer constructive criticism to whoever edited the section, laid out the arrangement of the front page, and wrote the headline.  The editor knows that the section is sponsored by the Mayo Clinic and, yet, made it part of the headline that the surgery was done “At Mayo.”  Worse, the editor must have known that the story would run in juxtaposition to the Mayo Clinic’s weekly sponsorship ad on the front page of the section, seen above.

No matter what the Star Tribune may say about a firewall between the editorial department and the advertising/business office of the newspaper, you can’t overcome the clear and strong perception of a whopping conflict of interest in this sponsorship deal when it allows paid placement immediately adjacent to headlines that go out of their way to mention the sponsor.  Would the newspaper be as likely to put in the headline, “At Abbott Northwestern…” or at “At Regions Hospital….” or “At any other local/regional medical center….”?

If you missed it just last week, we reported on our concerns about the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) accepting Mayo Clinic funding, and then awarding Mayo three sponsored sessions featuring their speakers at this year’s AHCJ annual conference in Orlando.

Trudy Lieberman has written in the past about troublesome media partnerships with Mayo – in cases where Mayo paid news organizations that eventually awarded fawningly favorable news coverage of Mayo. One example:

Questions about Mayo Clinic deal with Minneapolis TV station

Finally, if you missed part three of our series last week on conflicts of interest in health care journalism, watch this video to get more background on what’s wrong with this growing trend of news organizations cutting deals with entities that they regularly report on. The people who taught me ethics would be rolling over in their graves.

Disclosure:  From 2000-2001, I was the founding editor of the MayoClinic.com website – now no longer in existence.  More than 16 years in the past, that feels like ancient history but I disclose it nonetheless.  And I see things more often in the Star Tribune because I live in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metropolitan area.  But, as demonstrated in this piece and elsewhere on our website, these problems exist far more broadly than in Lake Wobegon country.

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Comments (2)

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Michael Hubbard

June 20, 2017 at 7:25 am

Although I understand your point – please consider it from a marketing point of view. As the owner of an advertising agency, we focus our placements on contextually relevant locations – so in other words, putting an ad for the Mayo clinic around a positive article about the Mayo clinic makes a lot of sense. In the digital world, we can do that without the publishers permission or editorial review, and we can exclude negative comment so our ads only appear when it’s a positive story. So if your concern is based on the old church and state argument – are you also concerned about the digital space where the publisher has no say? The reality is, it’s smart for the Star Tribune to pair these two up. The article is a positive article, so why not provide readers with a way to reach out to the Mayo clinic via a paid spot? I think your concern is more based on is the advertising leading the editorial. You’ve already stated the credibility of the reporter – so what is your concern? I could see if the Star Tribune partnered with a major tobacco company and then wrote articles about the great things they were doing in the community and paired it with an ad – but they didn’t. They chose a reputable business, and maximized their profit knowing full well they could write good human interest stories off of it. To be honest, it’s probably the only thing the print industry can do to stay afloat – so I have a hard time criticizing an outlet when they get creative and for all the right reasons. Maybe you have more examples that I’m not aware of, or maybe – you were just writing content so that I’d notice your own sponsors or donate to you – in which case, it seems an ironic post. Regardless – I can see how it can be a conflict of interest at a larger scale, but not in the example you used.

    Gary Schwitzer

    June 20, 2017 at 9:26 am

    Michael,

    On this project, we don’t consider it our job to consider things “from a marketing point of view.” Our responsibility is to the general public who are news consumers and health care consumers. We try to help them improve their critical thinking about health care, not to appreciate marketing methods.

    In part 3 of our series on conflicts of interest in health care journalism last week, we quoted Ben Bagdikian, journalist/educator/media critic, in his admonition to journalists:

    “Never forget that your obligation is to the people. It is not, at heart, to those who pay you, or to your editor, or to your sources, or to your friends, or to the advancement of your career. It is to the public.”

    Many of your comments and questions are addressed in the video included in that blog post from last week. You should watch and listen.

    If that doesn’t explain our position well enough for you, go back and read parts one and two of that series as well. You asked for more examples; there are plenty in those blog posts.

    https://www.healthnewsreview.org/2017/06/conflicts-of-interest-in-health-care-journalism-1-of-3/

    https://www.healthnewsreview.org/2017/06/conflicts-interest-time-worlds-top-health-journalism-organization-reconsider-fundraising-practices-part-2-3/

    But let me correct some false impressions you left in your comment. First, you asserted that we accept advertising sponsorship. We don’t, and never have in our 11-year history. We are fully grant-supported. Second, in last week’s series, we twice addressed the false claim in any false dichotomy that news organizations that accept money from health care entities they cover is “probably the only thing the print industry can do to stay afloat” as you state. I won’t restate the flaws in that argument, since we addressed them last week.

    Gary Schwitzer
    Publisher