Mary Chris Jaklevic is a freelance health reporter and regular contributor to this blog. She tweets as @mcjaklevic.
The Mayo Clinic is deploying a new tactic to influence journalists: An all-expenses-paid residency program.
Last week the health system invited reporters to apply for a five-day fellowship at its Rochester, Minn., campus entitled “Mayo Foundation Journalist Residency: Behind the Scenes in Surgery.” Mayo described the program as “an in-depth look at the latest developments in surgery.”
In previous years Mayo has sponsored workshops on health topics that were run by the National Press Foundation, but Mayo is no longer listed among the foundation’s funders. Neither the NPF nor Mayo responded to inquiries about why they’ve cut ties.
Mayo also sponsored an educational track at this year’s Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) conference, covered here.
By striking out on its own to offer training, Mayo will fully control the content and select the journalists who will attend. HealthNewsReview.org has written at length about the conflicts of interest posed by industry-sponsored journalism training, but Mayo’s latest move seems even more problematic, since there will be no third party to make sure the content is balanced.
In an email, Mayo Clinic Media Relations Director Karl Oestreich told me:
“Education is a fundamental part of Mayo’s mission as a not-for-profit academic medical center. We decided to create the program after receiving an overwhelmingly positive response from journalists who attended similar programs we sponsored over the past few years. Journalists routinely request and appreciate this type of access to physicians and researchers, whether through a Mayo program or similar residency programs at other academic medical centers.”
Let’s break that down.
“Education is a fundamental part of Mayo’s mission.”
The Mayo mission statement reads: “To inspire hope, and contribute to health and well-being by providing the best care to every patient through integrated clinical practice, education and research.”
It’s a reach to say that educating journalists — as opposed to physicians and health professionals — is meant to be part of that integrated model of care, or that educating journalists about surgical advances would somehow lead to better patient care.
In 2015 HealthNewsReview.org contributor Andrew Holtz, a former AHCJ president, wrote that Mayo’s sponsorship of a NPF workshop on precision medicine appeared to “dovetail with Mayo’s strategic plan and marketing.” One could make a similar argument about a program highlighting Mayo’s extensive surgical offerings, which are one of its major selling points to patients.
“We decided to create the program after receiving an overwhelmingly positive response from journalists who attended similar programs we sponsored over the past few years.”
If the response was positive to the NFP training programs, why not entrust NFP or another journalism organization to train journalists?
“Journalists routinely request and appreciate this type of access to physicians and researchers, whether through a Mayo program or similar residency programs at other academic medical centers.”
So Mayo should continue to provide reporters with access on an as-needed basis.
There’s not a lot of mystery about what Mayo is attempting to do. Holtz characterized this residency program as a “plain old ‘fam tour,’ as in the all-expenses-paid ‘familiarization’ tours that resorts and other travel businesses give to travel agents (and travel writers) with the clear intention of garnering recommendations and new business.”
He added: “I’m trying to think of reasons that a journalist would accept…
He also said: “The Mayo trip sounds fun, especially for reporters at news outlets that no longer have a travel budget. But it’s a sales pitch, with an agenda set by the source… and that makes it difficult to see the journalistic value of attending. Journalists should pick their stories and sources, not the other way around.”
Mayo said journalists will be able to “personalize” part of their reporting, but Holtz said the way to do that is “by exercising full control over who they talk to. Reporters who want to do stories about surgery should do their homework, decide what the story is, and then seek out a variety of sources.”
Mayo also said it will include “outside speakers,” but that’s little assurance of balance since it seems unlikely that Mayo would expose reporters to any messaging that doesn’t line up with its interests.
Oestreich declined to say how the much the program is costing Mayo or where the money will come from. He also declined to say how much it would cost for journalists who want to pay their own way.
The response will be interesting. There aren’t many newsrooms these days that can afford to give a reporter a week off for training. More to the point, news organizations may violate their own ethics guidelines by allowing their reporters to attend.
For example, the Associated Press Media Editors’ Statement of Ethical Principles reads:
“News organizations should accept nothing of value from news sources or others outside the profession. Gifts and free or reduced-rate travel, entertainment, products and lodging should not be accepted. Expenses in connection with news reporting should be paid by the organization. Special favors and special treatment for members of the press should be avoided.”
Even if a news organization were to pay for it’s reporter’s travel and accommodations, which Mayo offers as an option, a fellowship could be construed as a thing of value or special treatment.
Likewise the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics says journalists should:
“–Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
–Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.”
Similar language has been adopted by the AHCJ, which also calls for a “dispassionate relationship with sources.”
Accepting free training is at least a “perceived” conflict that should be avoided.
Weighing the impact of the NFP’s industry-sponsored health care workshops back in 2015, Trudy Lieberman, also a former president of AHCJ, wrote:
“But when journalists attend events such as the NPF’s on the sponsor’s dime, they are taking a gift, plain and simple. As innocent as that may appear, a gift implies reciprocity. How does the receiver repay? Favorable treatment for the giver; a reluctance to ask tough questions; directly or indirectly promoting their points of view; or a nod to their products and services when it’s appropriate for a story?”
There’s also a practical issue of disclosure. If a journalist attends this residency, would they be obligated to disclose it every time they write about one of the topics on the program, or mention Mayo Clinic in a story? It seems that to be fair to readers, they would have to at least consider it. I don’t know of many reporters who would relish that obligation.
These problems signal that Mayo’s leadership has a fundamental misunderstanding of the way journalists operate, or should operate. All one can do is urge journalists to think about the implications before hitting “send” to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’d be interested in hearing from journalists about whether they think there’s any value to attending this residency program. Would you apply for it? Why or why not? And what disclosures do you think journalists who do attend should make in their future reporting? Use our contact form to submit a private comment.