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:
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.