Commentary: The Corruption Of Tv Health News

Viewers who tune into the local news on Channel 11 (WBAL-TV) in Baltimore will see a series of reports on women's health by Donna Hamilton, the station's health news reporter. In these reports, part of a series called "The Woman's Doctor," Hamilton explains why women should get screened for cervical cancer, for example, or how they can identify the warning signs of ovarian cancer.

Careful viewers might notice that the doctors in these news reports are all from Baltimore's Mercy Medical Center. What viewers do not know is that the reports are part of a promotional deal between Mercy and WBAL. Mercy pays WBAL a hefty fee to get its doctors on these reports. And Mercy officials meet with WBAL staffers every few months to discuss story ideas for upcoming reports.

Such deals involving hospital placements in news stories are increasingly common, hospital officials and television executives say. Many hospitals buy advertising time on TV, of course, but these deals are something different: Mercy wouldn't say what it pays, but hospitals can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to get their doctors and their hospitals on the news.

RIVALRY. It's difficult to know exactly how widespread such arrangements are. Hospitals being offered the deals are sometimes reluctant to talk about them for fear of angering local stations and being locked out of coverage. Hospitals compete ferociously for patients, and loss of TV coverage can be devastating. Gary N. Michael, vice-president for marketing and business development at Mercy, says he has received numerous calls from other stations seeking advice on setting up such programs themselves. Medstar Television, a production company in Allentown, Pa., that brokers these deals and prepares the news reports, wouldn't say how many clients it has, but it did say its clients include hospitals, health plans, and TV stations in San Diego, Denver, Hawaii, and San Francisco. A hospital promotion group within the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), concerned about these new kinds of news sponsorships, has scheduled a panel session to discuss the issue at its upcoming meeting in March.

These promotional arrangements, by creeping into news reports, violate a cardinal principle of journalism--that news and advertising should always be kept separate. Advertising should never masquerade as news. And news outlets should not share undisclosed financial involvement with the subjects of stories. That was what got the Los Angeles Times in trouble last fall, when it wrote about the Staples Center entertainment complex and shared ad revenues with the center. "You want the public to trust that a news organization is going to approach any story without bias or favoritism," says Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Assn. and former Washington bureau chief for CBS News. "If the content is being selected or influenced by someone who is paying for the privilege of doing that, it is no longer impartial news reporting. There would be no reason to believe that it's honest."

ALARMS. For Mercy Medical Center, the WBAL deal is valuable precisely because it gets the hospital into the newscast. "Ads are limited by the amount of time--there's only so much you can say in 30 seconds," says Michael. "We wanted to showcase our docs as real people and get into the nitty-gritty issues, and I think you do that best through a news story." Mercy spends a third of its promotional budget on its WBAL contract. It employs a full-time public-relations specialist to administer the program, and it has hired a local sportscaster to give media training to doctors before they appear on TV.

The program clearly has proved its effectiveness, Michael says. When "The Woman's Doctor" began airing in 1994, Mercy was "a distant the metro area when you asked what hospital you would recommend to a friend for women's health," Michael says. "After one year, we were ranked No. 2, and in 1997, we became No. 1."

For WBAL, the arrangement "was a new opportunity to create revenue," says Ronald L. Briggs, an account executive who works with Michael on the program. It also helped the station attract viewers. "In the beginning, it allowed us to promote our news. We were promoting Mercy, Mercy was promoting `The Woman's Doctor,' and it was promoting viewership," he says. Mercy "has been on the cutting edge of marketing."

Marianne Banister, a WBAL-TV anchor who sometimes introduces the Mercy reports, says the practice has alarmed reporters. "It has a lot of people in newsrooms going `Whoa, whoa--what's going on?"' she says. She "was not particularly comfortable with it to begin with," but she feels the station has not crossed the "fine line between advertising, promotion, and news." News Director Princell Hair does not think the reports compromise the station's standards, because the news staff controls the content. "We decide what story to do, what not to do," he says. "We have complete control over the editorial content. If we didn't, I wouldn't be comfortable with this." What if the relationship with Mercy became known to viewers? "I don't think this would taint our relationship with viewers at all," he says. "It's providing them valuable information."

"RELATIONSHIP." Studies by the Radio-Television News Directors Assn., however, suggest that viewers are concerned about advertisers' influence on news. A poll of 1,007 people in 1998 found that 84% believe advertisers "sometimes or often" improperly influence news content. A similar poll of 300 TV news directors found that only 43% of them agreed.

Not every hospital is eager to pursue such TV deals. L.G. Blanchard, director of Health Sciences News & Community Relations at the University of Washington and the organizer of the medical colleges' meeting on this subject, recently turned down such a proposal. "To the uninvolved observer, it would appear that we were being asked to purchase positive news coverage," he says. He says colleagues at other hospitals have told him that prices for such arrangements can range from $25,000 to $200,000 per year, he says. "I can see a day when nobody is going to get news coverage unless they've paid for it. That's a world I don't want to live in."

Medstar Television Inc. has been arranging such relationships between hospitals and TV stations for more than a decade. "We build a relationship between a local television station and an underwriter in a marketplace," says Vice-President Susan Ferrari. "It could be a TV station and a hospital, or a TV station and a health plan." The "underwriter" pays Medstar to produce two 90-second reports each week, which are given free to local stations. The stations' reporters add their voices, making it appear that the reports were produced by the local station. "It's not advertising. It's really content that's prepared for the newscast," says Ferrari. "The TV station airs the program on its newscast." The reports are preceded or followed by brief advertising spots identifying the sponsor, but the spots do not explain that the sponsor paid for production of the news items.

NO SALE. Medstar would not say how much it charges, but a Medstar proposal obtained by BUSINESS WEEK says the yearly charge for airing two news spots per week for a year is at least $364,000. The figure rises in subsequent years of a multiyear deal. In its proposal, Medstar notes the particular value of featuring doctors on the news: "A PR agency or TV sales department can guarantee that an organization's physicians will appear on TV commercials...But they can't guarantee the physicians will be on the news, the most credible source for health information." Edward C. Dougherty, Medstar's vice-president for broadcasting, defended the company's editorial integrity. "We and the stations maintain total editorial control, from topic selection, research, script writing, final editing," he says.

That's not quite good enough. "Total editorial control" ought to mean the ability to choose the most qualified doctors and researchers to be part of a story--without being influenced by the hospital sponsoring the report. The sponsorship of TV news stories is a problem with an easy answer: TV stations shouldn't offer to sell the news, and hospitals shouldn't buy it. Medical news affects life-and-death decisions every day. It is essential that viewers and patients believe they are getting direct, unbiased information from local TV stations. If television news is prepared for the benefit of sponsors, rather than for the public, all of its credibility is lost.