Junkfood Science: News-mercials: Don’t trust that dial!

March 16, 2007

News-mercials: Don’t trust that dial!

It’s highly unlikely that your local television station independently researched, wrote and produced the “health news” segments you watch every day. Increasingly being aired are prepackaged stories fed to stations through health news services, produced by hospitals and special interests. It’s the latest brilliant form of advertising masquerading as news.

Trudy Lieberman wrote an in-depth piece in the Columbia Journalism Review that is worthy of attention:

The Epidemic

...The professional-looking story had that gee-whiz feel so typical of TV health news, explaining how the technology was making it easier for patients to get back to normal....Viewers could be forgiven if they thought they were seeing real news reported by one of the station’s reporters. ... The story had been fed to the station by the Cleveland Clinic, the health care behemoth... In essence, the story was a hybrid of news and marketing, the likes of which has spread to local TV newsrooms all across the country in a variety of forms, almost like an epidemic.

It’s the product of a marriage of the hospitals’ desperate need to compete for lucrative lines of business in our current health system and of TV’s hunger for cheap and easy stories. In some cases the hospitals pay for airtime, a sponsorship, and in others, they don’t but still provide expertise and story ideas. Either way, the result is that too often the hospitals control the story. Viewers who think they are getting news are really getting a form of advertising. And critical stories—hospital infection rates, for example, or medical mistakes or poor care—tend not to be covered in such a cozy atmosphere. The public, which could use real health reporting these days, gets something far less than quality, arms-length journalism….

As any medical professional who has worked inside a hospital sponsoring one of these medical news segments quickly realizes, the affiliated news stations almost assuredly don’t touch the real news or disclose hard or controversial issues. Instead, they will promote some new piece of equipment, procedure or program, or “educate” consumers on the need for them; and, by offering advice on health or nutrition, they actively promote their hospital’s image as being the best and having knowing experts. Most consumers believe that if a doctor is on television, he must be top-notch. That perception adds to the hospital’s favorable image. For-profit hospitals appear to often be behind the most blatantly biased news stories.

These “news” stories take many forms, such as “ask the expert” segments, health watches, “your health,” brief newscast soundbytes, or staged investigations hosted by a local reporter. The sponsor selects the topics, the slant and the information, and it’s given the look of journalism by an on-air presence of a reporter, yet few consumers realize they’re watching what is little more than an infomercial.

As Ms. Lieberman found in her investigation: “Cleveland Clinic News Service stories almost always feature Cleveland Clinic doctors and patients touting some new surgical technique or medical breakthrough, like antiaging proteins or a new sensor to measure spinal disc damage, or sometimes offering basic health tips, like flu shots or exercise. Stories occasionally mention research from another institution or a medical journal, but never a doctor from a rival hospital in Cleveland. That would hardly further the underlying goal of the news service: public awareness of the Cleveland Clinic brand.”

The health news supplied by Cleveland Clinic is more encompassing than many realize. One example we looked at in an earlier post: Cleveland Clinic supplies the obesity-related content for WebMD to promote its Cleveland Clinic Bariatric and Metabolic Institute. It also supplies nutritional and childhood obesity content, and weight loss information for WebMD. Marketing the obesity issue is so important to Cleveland Clinic, for example, it even makes television segments available for free, such as “Whipping Kids Back into Shape.” And Cleveland Clinic doesn’t just supply television stations with broadcast-ready health “news,” but this past fall introduced an online video feed made available to area schools.

While hospitals are hungry for new business, they don’t just want any patient, said Lieberman, “only those with good insurance to pay for the big-ticket procedures that bring in the big bucks.” That may explain why she found the health stories that dominate local TV news tend to push expensive specialties and procedures.

Why is this significant for us?

Because stations are able to get health news supplied to them and even make money on the deal, they are less inclinced to hire their own health reporters. Without an experienced, independent journalist to ask the tough questions and look critically at these stories or to dig up the real news, viewers are left only with these marketing pieces. The ethics of news hopping the fence to marketing makes true journalists and medical professionals uncomfortable. These fake news stories aren’t marked as advertising and most viewers probably don’t realize that they’ve been bought and paid for. This lack of disclosure raises serious issues about if consumers are getting the soundest and most objective medical information in order to make informed choices for themselves and their families.

The CJR did an analysis of eight stories released last year by Cleveland Clinic News Service and found that all 26 stations had used them almost verbatim. This probably isn’t surprising to Junkfood Science readers accustomed to learning that the media also regularly repeats press releases verbatim.

The CJR also investigated the effectiveness of these canned news services for their hospitals. There is a reason hospitals will pay huge sums of money to sponsor these spots. The Mayo Clinic, for example, sends out its weekly Medical Edge stories to 130 stations. CJR obtained an inside PowerPoint presentation which showed that in the viewing areas, brand preference for Mayo had surged 59% in the first three years after their service began. The full CJR article has the details on what kind of money this advertising tactic has meant for hospitals and for the news stations.

“It’s hard to see that the TV-hospital partnerships do much for the public interest,” wrote Ms. Lieberman.

There are two additional points to understanding the full scope of this issue. It’s not just hospitals and vested healthcare providers...and it’s not just mainstream news stations, such as FOX, ABC, NBC and CBS. Any organization or foundation with something to sell — a product, service, belief or agenda — can and has bought their own news. And even those news outlets we believe and trust to be serving our best interests and giving us the straight story, often aren’t.

We’ve already looked at the example of GlaxoSmithKline — the pharmaceutical giant that paid over $100 million for the U.S. rights to the prescription version of Orlistat and has undertaken an intense guerilla marketing campaign to convince Americans they need drugs to help them lose weight — underwriting the April program for PBS called “Fat: What no one is telling you.”

But there are other examples, even at PBS and NPR. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has had an active Broadcast Health service for years and supplies news stories to television and radio stations nationwide to sell its extensive health agendas and anti-obesity initiatives, some of which were covered in multiple posts here at Junkfood Science in January. NPR has been a RWJF recipient for specific programs it produces and distributes to 672 affiliated stations nationwide and its radio newsmagazines, which reach 10.9 million listeners.

But did you know that the content and funding for the health and health policy news segments on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer on PBS have been supplied by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation? It began with a $1.59 million grant in 2004. This news partnership has meant those in-depth segments on important health and policy issues, including “costs of health care to the growing epidemic of childhood obesity,” have enabled RWJF, one of the biggest players in the war on obesity, to promote its agendas. “These pieces also run on the Online NewsHour, as streaming audio/video and printed transcript,” according to PNN Online.

The bottom line is that “brought to you by...” means much more than we might ever have imagined. The lines between journalism and marketing have become imperceptible. It’s up to us to keep a critical eye to everything we hear, read and see, and to dig for the truth.

© 2007 Sandy Szwarc

Bookmark and Share