Gary Schwitzer at Health News Review raised a question about journalistic ethics the other day when he took a whack at former newspaperman Ken Burger for returning to his old employer, Charleston, South Carolina’s The Post and Courier, to write a new column—-this time sponsored by the Roper St. Francis Healthcare system. He will write about health care, which Burger says in his debut column is “perhaps the most significant issue of our times.” Burger retired last summer after forty years in the news biz, twenty-seven of them at the Charleston paper, where he wrote columns for the sports and metro sections and was once the paper’s Washington correspondent.
Burger was never a health reporter, but a feature writer, and the health field, he says, is ripe with human interest stories. Burger is also not an unknown quantity to St. Francis. A few years ago a St. Francis urologist diagnosed him with prostate cancer. During his treatment, Burger said, he “got to know the people behind the walls, down the halls, and inside the rooms at Roper St. Francis.” With help from St. Francis, he also started an annual golf tournament to raise money for prostate cancer research. When he left the paper, he said, he was a free agent with a “reputation and a market,” which he took to St. Francis. He approached the hospital with a package that included the twice-a-month newspaper column, sponsorship ads on his website, the golf tournament, and emceeing St. Francis events. He’s paid by St. Francis. St. Francis pays the paper and gets a popular columnist back to write and attract readers without funding his salary. Burger told me the column runs in advertising space inside the B section of the paper and clearly says above his picture and headline “Sponsored by Roper St. Francis Healthcare. “I am not trying to pretend I am not working for Roper St. Francis Healthcare,” he told readers. “Indeed I am proud to represent this organization.”
Schwitzer’s column sparked my interest since the subject of hospital conflicts is something I have covered for CJR. Many of these alliances are unsavory, and disguise hospital-produced news as the real thing, often reported by legitimate reporters from local TV stations. As we’ve pointed out, these deals are profitable both for hospitals, which get to “advertise” their most lucrative services in the form of what seems to be a news story, and for the local stations, which get canned stories from the hospitals complete with patients for anecdotes and doctor “experts” for commentary about whatever treatment is being touted.
The danger, I wrote, is that a hospital’s money connection is not usually disclosed—but, more significantly, contracts with the stations sometimes forbid their reporters from interviewing other experts on a topic, which is vital for producing a well-rounded piece. Sometimes hospitals use TV talent to host health fairs and community events, hoping that the cachet of a TV anchor will burnish their reputation.
Did Burger’s deal with the hospital fall into the same unethical bucket? Schwitzer seems to think so, challenging him to write stories about overtreatment and overdiagnosis, the effectiveness of such technologies as robotic surgery, and justification for the hospital’s use of screening tests that may not be justified. All good questions. But if it’s clearly noted that the hospital is paying for the space and Burger’s words, doesn’t that signal to readers there may not always be an arms-length relationship between the writer and the hospital when it comes to column content? How is this different from other sponsored content that appears in newspapers, magazines, and websites? Should the reader be able to judge whether to trust the writer as long as full disclosure is given? Does this cross what’s left of the old ad/edit line when Burger is no longer on the paper’s staff? Schwitzer reported in his blog post the paper still lists him as a staff member. But I found no listing for him yesterday. Perhaps the paper crossed him off after Schwitzer’s post appeared.
I’m not in Schwitzer’s camp on this one. Writing a piece labeled sponsored content is a lot different from the sins I uncovered a few years ago researching the “The Epidemic.” And plenty of health care journos have gone to work as hospital publicists or joined PR firms to shill for drug companies. Still, Schwitzer makes an important point about the stories that need to be covered if the public is really to understand this “most significant issue of our times.” One of his readers did too, asking whether Burger will use his access to hospital folks to “talk about best practices and ways for health care to be better and cheaper for the consumer.”