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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.