The clever packaging and convergent marketing that come with TV-hospital partnerships fly in the face of a consumer empowerment movement for transparency in health care, pushed by some academics, employers, and patient advocacy groups, that is beginning to take root in the U.S. The movement envisions that educated patients will take responsibility for choosing the best care by using scientific and objective data—if data are available. But when patients get the impression through branding activities with local news stations that hospital A is superior, data that show hospital B is really better may have little meaning. In fact, such data may be overlooked entirely by TV news departments as well as patients. The tremendous investment being made to devise fair and useful health care metrics may well be wasted because television’s complicity in hospital branding activities will ultimately overwhelm those efforts.

The partnerships also contribute to the dysfunction of the U.S. health care system. Hospitals understandably want high revenue from high-cost services to help subsidize the uncompensated care they provide to the uninsured who can’t pay on their own, a practice that might be eliminated with a more rational payment system. But stories about profitable, high-tech, yet often unproven procedures stimulate demand for them, fueling ever-rising health care costs.

Local TV health journalism doesn’t often discuss those big issues, or even often take on the smaller stories that together weave a tale of a health care system in trouble. And marketing partnerships with local hospitals almost mandate that it will be so, substituting lazy journalism and gee-whiz technology stories for the real thing.

It’s hard to see that the TV-hospital partnerships do much for the public interest. Citizens groups have challenged the licenses of stations in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Oregon for offering scant local election coverage. Perhaps fake health news should be their next target.

Last October at a reunion of fellows from the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation, spoke of a problem with choice in America. “Choice can be manipulated,” Gregorian said. “Choice without knowledge is no choice at all.” That’s what local TV news is in danger of giving us when it comes to health care.

CORRECTION:

The original version of this story contained a paragraph about KPIX-TV in San Francisco that we have removed because it contained an error. The paragraph noted that KPIX has an advertising deal with Sutter Health Network, and as part that deal KPIX runs an half-hour Sutter-produced infomercial called “Your Health” twice a month. The paragraph further asserted that when Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, part of Sutter Health, ran into serious accreditation problems in 2004, KPIX failed to cover those problems. But KPIX did, in fact, cover those problems, mentioning them in several newscasts. We regret the error and any negative implications about health coverage by KPIX, which employs a medical doctor and a full-time producer on the health beat.

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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.