Perhaps most disturbing is the persistence of cases in which local TV news programs have allowed advertisers to determine on-air content. In Wisconsin, a news director resigned over the station’s “pay-for-play” arrangement with a local hospital that had agreed to advertise in exchange for a commitment from the station to air health stories twice a week—from a list of ideas provided by the hospital. A hospital in Ohio paid local TV stations $100,000 or more to air “medical breakthrough” segments that benefited the hospital. A Florida morning show was soliciting $2,500 fees in exchange for guest slots. In other cases, stations are airing video press releases as if they were news stories created by news staff. Though we have no way of knowing how many stations have adopted these egregious practices, the trend-line is worrisome: “The evidence we’ve seen suggests that this is much more widespread than a few years ago,” says Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the Pew Project on Excellence in Journalism.

This is not meant to be a blanket indictment of local TV news. Some stations have done more than maintain their reporting capacity; they have improved it. But the evidence indicates that in many communities if local TV news continues on its current path, it will not fill the gaps in accountability reporting left by newspapers. In fact, 64 percent of broadcast news executives believe that their profession is headed in the wrong direction; they are even more pessimistic than newspaper editors. We emphasize the word “current” because local TV news has the capacity to play a different—more journalistically significant—role in the new ecosystem. The question is whether the industry will seize that opportunity.” (Also, see the Pew report’s chapter on TV news, starting on page 72.)

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“Journalism protects consumers. Journalism checks powerful institutions.”

“Information Needs of Communities,” page 52:

Health: A March 2009 report, titled “The State of Health Journalism in the U.S.,” produced for the Kaiser Family Foundation, found that the number of health reporters has declined even though reader interest in the topic remains strong. Fewer reporters are doing more work, resulting in “a loss of in-depth, enterprise and policy-related stories.”139 The report, by Gary Schwitzer, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota, concluded:

interest in health news is as high as it’s ever been, but because the staff and resources available to cover this news have been slashed, the workload on remaining reporters has gone up. many journalists are writing for multiple platforms, adding multimedia tasks to their workload, having to cover more beats, file more stories, and do it all quicker, in less space, and with fewer resources for training or travel. demand for ‘quick hit’ stories has gone up, along with ‘news you can use’ and ‘hyper-local’ stories.

As a result, many in the industry are worried about a loss of in-depth, enterprise and policy-related stories. And newsrooms with reduced staff who are facing pressure to produce are more vulnerable to public relations and advertising pressures. Health news may be particularly challenged by the issues of sponsored segments, purchased stories, and [video news releases] Vnrs.

While specific figures are not available to track newspapers’ reduction in health reporters, the Kaiser report said that, in a survey of members of the Association of Health Care Journalists, 94 percent of respondents said that “bottom-line pressure in news organizations is seriously hurting the quality of health news.” Further, 40 percent ofjournalists surveyed said that the number of health reporters at their outlets had gone down during their tenure there, and only 16 percent said the number had increased.142 In addition, “39 percent said it was at least somewhat likely that their own position would be eliminated in the next few years.”

Steven Waldman was senior advisor to the Chairman of the FCC and principal author of its report on the changing media landscape. He was chair of the Council on Foundations Working Group on Nonprofit Media and is a consultant to the Pew Research Center. Before that, he was the founder of Beliefnet.com and a national correspondent for Newsweek.