Media ethics pitfalls of pay-for-play broadcast health information

Gary Schwitzer is founder and publisher of HealthNewsReview.org.  He taught media ethics at the University of Minnesota for 9 years.  He tweets as @garyschwitzer, or using our project handle, @HealthNewsRevu.

This would be a good case study for the next textbook on media ethics.

On radio and television in the Providence, Rhode Island area, Dr. Tad Sztykowski bought media time to reach listeners and viewers about his work at his Centers for Integrative Medicine and Healing.

Now he may need to buy time to think about what’s next in his career, after the state of Rhode Island ordered him to “surrender his Rhode Island license as a Doctor of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine” and to “cease and desist from holding himself out as a licensed physician.”

First, since we focus on media issues on this site, let’s look at the media buys.  They are a hallmark of WPRI Media, which states, “We want to work with a business, partner with them and help them understand the best use of their advertising dollars. …WPRI Media includes WPRI Channel 12 (CBS), WNAC Fox Providence (FOX) and myRITV (myNetworkTV). Our digital platforms include wpri.com, foxprovidence.com and Lin Digital.”

Dr. Tad bought his way into television appearances on WPRI-TV’s “The Rhode Show,” which boasts, “The Rhode Show offers local professionals and business owners the chance to promote their business within the program. With a variety of sponsorship and segment purchase options The Rhode Show will help you to develop one on one relationships with local consumers.” Here’s a video of one of Dr. Tad’s appearances on “The Rhode Show.”

WPRO News Talk radio station (630 AM, 99.7 FM) has apparently taken down from its website any mention of Dr. Tad, although I found a cached version of his bio and a listing for “The Dr. Tad Show.”  Excerpts of that bio:

Dr. Tad established his first practice in September of 1990, since then Centers for Integrative Medicine and Healing has successfully treated over 21,000 patients with their health problems with a 97% success rate. Dr. Tad has additionally treated 25,000 patients with Western Medicine. … Dr. Tad has delivered more than 5,000 newborns, performed 2,000 surgeries, has treated more than 40,000 patients with both Western Medicine and Oriental Medicine and is a licensed M.D. in 28 Countries.

But now Dr. Tad’s reputation has taken a hit, as will WPRI Media’s revenue stream from Dr. Tad’s pay-for-play appearances.

The GoLocalProv website posted the official consent order for voluntary surrender of license, but excerpted some of the order:

The (Rhode Island) Department of Health has ordered Dr. Tad to “refrain from advertising or marketing that is false, deceptive or misleading, or that is likely to deceive, defraud or harm the public.”

Further, the Department stated the “respondent shall cease and desist from holding himself out as a licensed physician.”

The next day, the GoLocalProv site followed up with some comments from Dr. Tad’s critics and supporters.  But one observer blamed the WPRI Media entities:

“The [Rhode Show] and every other media that had him as a guest should have made it crystal clear he was not board certified in the U.S. It sounds like many people have been caused stress and possibly harm at his hands. Everyone should do their due diligence, ask questions…..do a back ground check…don’t just assume all doctors are good,” wrote Paul Schwartz. “Some are amazing and will do everything in their power to help you and show compassion…others should be ashamed to call themselves doctors.”

In recent weeks, we’ve been reporting on conflicts of interest in health care journalism. And we have several more stories in the works.  You can find them all archived here.

Dr. Tad’s radio or TV appearances were not “journalism.”  But the pay-for-play arrangements of media companies present troubling media ethics situations for ownership.  Will they take money from anyone?  Who verifies the claims made by “guests” who pay their way on the air? How is the public protected from conflicts of interests, with broadcast stations turning over the airwaves to people with vested interests? Remember when we once viewed radio and TV as “the public airwaves”?  What a quaint concept.  56 years ago, Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow called television, “the vast wasteland.”  Today, that could be extended to much of what is heard on local commercial radio as well.

As we always do on this site, we point out that when conflicted media messages concern health issues, people can be harmed.  So a practitioner’s license was taken away.   But who will do anything about the media entity at the heart of this story?

Addendum on July 5, 2017:

The GoLocalProv.com website today published a followup, “Dr. Tad Is Not the Only Media-Focused Physician With a Checkered Background in Rhode Island.”

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Comments (2)

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Doug Taylor

June 28, 2017 at 9:59 am

One of the problems we have on Wikipedia is that we write the content based on ‘reliable’ sources. In the past, these were mainly books and journals, but online sources are becoming increasingly prevalent, which often makes it less obvious what constitutes a reliable source. I just wanted to post a big “thank you” for the work you are doing, which makes it far easier for us to spot the bad sources. Keep up the good work!

    Stephen Cox, MD

    July 4, 2017 at 12:11 pm

    Doug, from a health care point of view You should and may already refer to sources as Science Based Medicine and Respectful Insolence when researching medical information, especially when it involves alternative or so called integrative and complementary practices and beliefs. True science-based research and ethical , non promotional studies are critically important.