NOTE: This story has been corrected, as detailed in a note at the end of the piece
When 19 thousand viewers tuned in to the 7 a.m. news on KTBC-TV, the local Fox channel in Austin, Texas, in mid-January, they heard the anchor, Joe Bickett, introduce a story about a new electronic rehabilitation system for injured kids. “Sharon Dennis has more on that,” Bickett said. Dennis then described how a lively fifteen-year-old named Merrill, who had sprained her ankle, was getting better thanks to the computer-guided rehab program that Cleveland Clinic researchers are calling “the world’s first virtual-only gym.”
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. It ended with “Sharon Dennis reporting.”
Viewers could be forgiven if they thought they were seeing real news reported by one of the station’s reporters. But Sharon Dennis does not work for KTBC. The story had been fed to the station by the Cleveland Clinic, the health care behemoth. Dennis, who earned her broadcasting bona fides at ABC News and at KOMO-TV in Seattle, works in Cleveland as the executive producer of the Cleveland Clinic News Service, in a windowless office on the fourth floor of the Intercontinental Hotel on the clinic’s sprawling 140-acre campus. There the clinic has constructed broadcast facilities for Dennis and her four-person staff, complete with three cameras, a background set, and an ON AIR sign purchased at Target. Every day, Dennis sends out prepackaged stories to, among others, Fox News Edge, a service for Fox affiliates that in turn distributes the pieces to 140 Fox stations. What Texas viewers heard that January morning was a script written at the Intercontinental Hotel.
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.
The story about the virtual gym-—which ran on twenty-one other stations, too—ended with Bickett saying that its developers hope to have the technology available in hospitals around the U.S. by the end of the year. Though he didn’t mention which hospitals, viewers could easily conclude that the Cleveland Clinic was one of them. Indeed that is what the clinic hopes. 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 Cleveland Clinic News Service is just one variation on the new alliance between hospitals and local TV news. Most of these arrangements are between a single health institution and a single TV station. They take different forms in different cities, but the deals all too frequently slide across the ad-edit wall. The partnerships may involve traditional commercials, but they often include a promise of some kind of “news” stories, too, involving reporters or news anchors. These can take the form of “ask the expert” programs, quick helpings of medical advice, short stories inserted into the newscasts, or longer, news-like specials that may be hosted by a news anchor or health reporter. In the worst cases, hospitals create the storyline, supplying both the experts and the patients. Some partnerships include a Web component; viewers are sent to the TV station Web site, where they find links to hospital Web sites that provide referrals to doctors or hospital services, and it becomes nearly impossible to separate news and marketing.