A newspaper’s murky partnership with a regional oncology center: boosting revenue but misleading readers

Joy Victory is Deputy Managing Editor of HealthNewsReview.org. She tweets at @thejoyvictory.

Like presumably many of my fellow Austin, Texas residents, I follow the Austin American-Statesman newspaper on Facebook because I want news–not sponsored advertorial content masquerading as journalism.

But that’s indeed what I got recently when I checked my phone and this popped up:

austin american statesman oncology

Because of the familiar blue logo and masthead symbol, I scanned it like I do any Facebook post from the Statesman–reading the headline and glancing at the photo to see if it’s relevant to me.

But, on second glance, I realized I had been duped–it was actually a “paid” post “sponsored” by Texas Oncology featuring a rather miraculous sounding survivor story. Following the link took me to a page that said “Texas Oncology Presents Men’s Health Awareness,” which included several promotional articles all nested under the Statesman’s masthead and navigation.

I’d like to think that if this was in print, it would clearly be a “special advertising supplement” tucked into the back of the paper, with all the other inserts. But when it’s online–and coming to me via Facebook–it’s much harder to tell what exactly is going on. The stories have bylines. They’re written in the third person, with quotes from patients, experts and loved ones. They read a whole heck of a lot like a typical news story. Yet, something’s a little off–things are all a little too cheery for the subject matter. (As we learn in one story, a brain cancer survivor’s wife says “I prayed to God to guide us to the right people. Get us to the right surgeon, the right oncologist, the right place, and He has.”)

This arrangement is clearly serving the cancer clinic–which gets potential new patients, since all the links from this site go directly to the clinic’s website–and the newspaper, which gets money.

But it’s not serving readers, because the medical information is not useful and instead may be harmful. The current featured story showcasing the atypical recovery of lawyer Phillip Durst is an example. We’re given the name of Durst’s doctor and details about his clinic (where the “staff is phenomenally knowledgeable, but also upbeat and friendly”). We’re not given many other facts readers need to know, such as:

  • the cost of treatment for the two drugs he’s on (hundreds of thousands of dollars per year),
  • the low efficacy rate and medical evidence for these drugs–even those that are FDA approved
  • the very real risk of life-threatening side effects
  • the lack of medical data showing these new drugs actually lengthen life span compared to standard treatment 
  • and, how people who do respond well tend to be atypical and rare “super responders”

All of these issues are addressed here: Six tips for writing accurately about cancer immunotherapy drugs

See our full coverage on this issue.

I can very easily see cancer patients getting their hopes raised by this article. It makes me cringe that they’re being given such lopsided information that paints the cancer center in only the most holy light possible.

“I understand that all news organizations need to find new ways to make money, but a page like this on a newspaper’s website is troubling,” said Andrew Seaman, ethics committee chairperson for the Society of Professional Journalists, in an email. “The page carries the newspaper’s flag and I can’t find anything that says these stories are not from the Statesman’s newsroom. At the very least, they need to do a better job at highlighting the difference between this content and the stories the paper actually produces.”

Seaman also suggested that on Facebook, there’s probably limited avenues to advertise the fact that the content is sponsored, but that the Statesman still needs to be more aggressive in pointing out the sponsorship. “For example, they might be able to put a ‘sponsored’ graphic somewhere on the picture,” he said.

The Statesman is far from alone. Last week the Columbia Journalism Review looked at the increasingly slippery path the New York Times is treading between news and advertising. We’ve also seen many recent similar examples of that we think, in the long run, will turn readers and viewers away and/or make them even more mistrustful of journalism. KARE-11, the NBC station in Minneapolis, for example, just ran a piece that was “co-authored” by someone on the public relations staff at the Mayo Clinic, which is one of the station’s major advertisers.

We think it goes without saying but we don’t mind repeating ourselves: When accepting money from a major medical organization that has enormous power over the health of many of your readers, it’s best to keep the separation of newsroom and advertising very, very clear. More: The trail of tainted funding: Conflicts of interest in healthcare, academics, public relations and journalism.

One also has to wonder how this also affects the reporters in the newsroom, who are undoubtedly aware of these special “branded content” arrangements and how they benefit their company’s bottom line. In the Statesman’s case, will their reporters still pursue important stories involving Texas Oncology knowing it may threaten the paper’s relationship with a major advertiser? We can only wonder.

Addendum: In addition to this issue, the Statesman recently apologized for and removed a real estate advertorial from their site after readers were outraged by the story’s claims about a historically black and Latino neighborhood. 

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