HealthDay digs to new lows in shovelware

Kevin Lomangino is the managing editor of HealthNewsReview.org. He tweets as @KLomangino.

We’ve been critical in the past of HealthDay’s practice of rehashing news releases and presenting them to readers as journalism.

Now they’ve sunk to a new low: re-posting news releases from an advocacy group verbatim without any acknowledgment that the content is public relations material.

It’s shovelware, plain and simple — shovel anything into the news hole as long as it looks like legitimate content.

‘An ethical obligation’ unfulfiiled

We discovered the troubling practice yesterday in our daily search for health care news stories. HealthDay had three news releases with the byline  “American Heart Association” on its consumer news feed. HealthDay describes that feed as providing “up to 18 original health news articles daily, written by our team of award-winning journalists and editors.”

AHA: Gene Test Predicts Who Won’t Benefit From Blood Thinner Plavix

AHA: ‘No Excuses’ for 3 Heart Disease Suriviors Walking to Stay Fit

AHA: Smart Ways to Get a Workout at Work

These articles weren’t original, nor were they written by anyone at HealthDay. They were products of the media relations team at the American Heart Association, whose job is not just to inform the public but also to advance the AHA’s advocacy agenda.

I reached out to three experienced voices from the worlds of health care journalism and communications to comment on the practice. These experts — all of whom are contributors to HealthNewsReview.org — noted that HealthDay’s approach risks blurring the line between journalism and marketing and is likely to confuse the casual reader. Some noted that it is an abdication of the company’s ethical responsibility to provide an independent assessment of claims — the foundation of any news organization.

“One of the key tenets of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is that news organizations must ‘act independently,’ said Kim Walsh-Childers, PhD, a professor in the department of journalism at the University of Florida. “SPJ further specifies that news organizations should ‘distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.'”

While a news release is not advertising per se, Walsh-Childers noted, she said the American Heart Association’s purpose for these news releases is not simply to provide consumers with information but to enhance the AHA’s reputation. “HealthDay certainly cannot claim that ‘acting independently’ includes re-posting press releases without making it abundantly clear to audiences that the content is, in fact, not news but public relations material,” she said. “HealthDay has an ethical obligation to distinguish news releases from independently produced content by stating explicitly that the HealthDay staff has made no attempt to verify the information contained in these posts.”

Marketing agenda may not be apparent

Joann Rodgers, a journalist and author who formerly led Johns Hopkins Medicine’s communications and public affairs division, said that while HealthDay promotes itself as “journalistic in its approach to gatekeeping health news,” the organization “fails its own values in this instance.”

“Although it makes clear the content is from the AHA,” she said, “the AHA should not be afforded the same credibility as independently sourced content. If HealthDay wants to round up news from voluntary health organizations and offer it as part of its content feed, it should at the very least say that explicitly, and note also that such content differs from original reporting or vetting of third party information.”

(Rodgers disclosed that she was involved with Board and Communications Committee of the American Heart Association for many years and received two journalism awards from the organization. “[AHA’s] news releases and historic science writers seminars were often very good, and useful to journalists, but also clearly part of AHA’s marketing and fundraising strategies that were not always transparent,” she said.)

Finally, Earle Holland, who for almost 35 years was the senior science and medical communications officer at Ohio State University, said:”Bona fide news organizations that post news releases verbatim without identifying them as news releases are doing a disservice to their readers, plain and simple.” He noted that while there’s some question as to whether HealthDay is, in fact, a “bona fide” news organization or an aggregator of content, “The casual reader isn’t making a distinction and that’s what HealthDay is counting on.”

Why this is important

As Holland points out, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a news organization reposting a news release as long as it’s clearly labeled as public relations document and carries the disclaimers noted above. Indeed, some news releases are more balanced and comprehensive than the supposedly journalistic news stories that they generate.

But that’s not what’s happening here. HealthDay represents its content as journalism, and I’d wager that the “thousands of media companies, hospitals, managed care organizations, publishers, non-profits and government agencies” whom HealthDay claims as customers think they’re getting journalism — as do the readers who ultimately consume HealthDay stories.

But public relations documents are not journalism. They have a purpose and an agenda that does not always coincide with the interests of patients and readers. (We’ve documented dozens of examples here.)

It is the responsibility of journalists to independently vet claims, not to simply repost an advocacy group’s PR message. HealthDay abdicated that responsibility in this case.

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Comments (5)

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Andrew DePristo

April 6, 2018 at 6:31 am

The objection to HealthDay is much ado about nothing. The AHA advocates for people to lead heart healthy lifestyles via diet and exercise. This cannot be considered public relations or marketing that advances the AHA except that it leads to healthier people, which is the AHA’s goals. But those are the goals of all healthcare professionals!
IMHO, the real objection by Health News Review is that the journalists at HealthDay are lazy because they are not writing their own material. That may be a valid professional objection, but is irrelevant for the people who read HealthDay for tips and information about their own health.

Kevin Lomangino

April 6, 2018 at 7:15 am

Thanks for your comment Andrew. However, it is naive to suggest that the AHA doesn’t have its own proprietary interests that may conflict with broader public health goals. In fact, we’ve written about these conflicts numerous times, both for the AHA and other health advocacy groups.

For example, when the AHA advocates for lower blood pressure targets with an advertising campaign based on scare tactics, many independent experts said the messages had the potential to cause harm.

Or when it issues guidelines that promote the position of its pharmaceutical industry supporters, many experts raised questions about whose interests were actually being served.

I could cite many many other examples. My objection has nothing to do with “laziness” — it’s the fact that the information being transmitted to the public has not been vetted as it should be by any legitimate news organization. AHA news releases are not journalism and HealthDay should not pretend that they are.

Kevin Lomangino
Managing Editor

Andrew DePristo

April 6, 2018 at 7:25 am

Of course, I fully expected a response that suggests my comment is naive. That is simply a way to misdirect the issue that HealthDay chose 3 pieces of information from the AHA which will help their readers leader heart-healthy lives. HealthDay doesn’t publish every AHA release and thus the AHA advocating for lower BP targets has nothing to do with the current story. The same goes for the AHA position on statins.
The simple fact is the HealthDay chose 3 pieces of information which will help their readers leader heart-healthy lives. That is came from the AHA is irrelevant.
Health News Review is simply making much ado about nothing in this case.

Kevin Lomangino

April 6, 2018 at 7:44 am

I respectfully disagree that this is “much ado about nothing.” There is a reason that the SPJ directs news organizations to act independently. The trust of readers is at stake, as is the quality of information that reaches them. News organizations reposting news releases is a bad idea.

Earle Holland

April 6, 2018 at 2:27 pm

The role of news organizations is to disseminate “news.” It’s not to deliver messages to the public, even if the news has beneficial value, that’s just a side effect. And it certainly isn’t the role of the news media to deliver “heart-healthy” information — that specifically is the role of the AHA as an advocacy group, one with an admirable purpose, but still an advocacy group! HealthDay purports to be a news site and therefore has an obligation to those who read their content. At the very least, they should identify borrowed content as news releases by the AHA.