Once more, a large hospital system has climbed in bed with a friendly TV station to promote high-end services, using a TV health reporter as its pitchman. The St. Louis Post Dispatch tells us that Barnes-Jewish Hospital and KSDK health reporter Kay Quinn have teamed up for a ten-month project that will feature weekly news segments with Quinn answering questions about cancer using experts from the hospital’s Siteman Cancer Center. The project also calls for the hospital to produce two-minute stories on cancer prevention that will air during commercial breaks in some newscasts. For its part, the station will host monthly phone banks and online chats with Siteman doctors.

Imagine all the new business that will come to Barnes-Jewish because of its collaboration with a supposedly impartial news outlet. Impartial is the operative word here. Apparently the Post-Dispatch reporter wasn’t able to pin down the financial details, but she did get the cancer center’s marketing director to say “we were looking for a way to push that message (about cancer prevention) even further and perhaps get a bit more regional.” She said the hospital approached the station, an NBC affiliate, and said: “‘Here’s what our need is, help us develop a program that will help us meet that need.’”

The station’s news director, Mike Shipley, told the paper that KSDK would do stories about cancer that would feature Barnes-Jewish doctors even if they didn’t have a financial tie to the hospital. Wow, what a statement! Are there no other cancer experts in the area, or in the country, who can speak authoritatively about the disease? He also maintained that the station had editorial control over news segments sponsored by the cancer center. “I fail to see the conflict,” he said. “Who’s against curing cancer?”

Well, nobody. But that’s not the point. It’s who is telling the story about the cures and what other voices are brought into the reportorial mix. These relationships are something we at CJR know a lot about. In the March/April 2007 issue of CJR, we published a definitive story on hospital-television station relationships, and discovered that too often the TV reporters were forbidden under the contract with the hospital to consult other experts, as good journalists are supposed to do. A hospital might tout some whiz-bang procedure that brings in big bucks, but with shaky medical evidence for its superiority. One reporter told me that her deal meant that she could not bring alternative points of view from other institutions into her stories. Is the public misled by this practice? We don’t know whether Quinn can consult other experts or challenge comments and advice given by Barnes-Jewish physicians.

The paper got into a tepid discussion of the ethics of these arrangements. Clearly, they raise ethical questions when the TV reporter stars in commercials for the hospital’s cancer center event. That’s what Quinn is doing. More important, though, is what, if anything, can be done to police them and sanction stations and hospitals that engage in these practices. A couple of years ago I talked about our CJR story at a gathering of hospital marketing officials from academic medical institutions. I damn near got lynched. One stood up and said she saw nothing wrong with what they were doing, asking who was I to suggest otherwise.

The Post-Dispatch story cited ethical guidelines from the Radio Television Digital News Association and the Association of Health Care Journalists. I am immediate past president of that group. The reporter might have told readers that while such guidelines are useful, they are just that—guidelines with no power to make hospitals or TV stations behave. The comment from Shipley regarding Quinn’s work on behalf of the hospital makes the point. “I’m happy for anybody to promote my talent and to promote the newsgathering operation we have here,” he told the Post-Dispatch. Contrast that with Glen Mabie, the former news director of WEAU-TV in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, who resigned in protest after the station agreed to run medical stories suggested by Sacred Heart Hospital featuring employees and services the hospital wanted to promote. The Society of Professional Journalists gave Mabie its ethics award. It’s doubtful Shipley is in the running for one.

Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.