Unhealthy Alliances Between Hospitals and TV Stations

SPJ award goes to a courageous news director

We were pleased to see that the Society of Professional Journalists has given an ethics award to Glen Mabie, the former news director at WEAU TV-13 in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Last January, Mabie 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 partnership also meant that the station could not talk to any rival hospitals in the area. So much for getting all points of view! Mabie quit, saying that his conscience would not allow him to defend the deal to his employees. The TV station later canceled the arrangement with the hospital.

It takes balls to do what Mabie did, and he has become something of a cause celebre in journalistic circles. The deal that WEAU struck with Sacred Heart is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Similar arrangements exist all over the country, and the public is unaware that the five o’clock news story on the latest imaging device used on patients at a local hospital—perhaps reported by the TV anchor—is really an ad in disguise.

We at CJR know a lot about “news” that crosses the line into advertising and misleads viewers and readers. We reported on the practice in the magazine’s March/April 2007 issue. Our investigation showed that, although these deals vary, they are usually 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.” Last March, a new variety surfaced in Maryland when The Capital, a 47,000 circulation daily paper in Annapolis, sold its weekly health page to the Anne Arundel Medical Center, relinquishing all control of stories, pictures, layout, the works. The paper did run a disclaimer, and, in a column, the publisher said the paper was “experimenting with a new concept that could alarm some readers.” Some were so alarmed the day the hospital page debuted that the paper scotched the agreement.

What to do about all this? The Association of Health Care Journalists and SPJ have issued a joint statement urging local broadcast stations and newspapers to avoid arrangements that improperly influence health coverage. The statement said that, even if such deals are disclosed to the readers and viewers, handing over editorial decision-making to hospitals violates the principles of ethical journalism and betrays the public trust. “Content produced by hospitals does not fulfill the duty of news organizations to provide the public with independent medical reporting,” the organizations said. (Full disclosure here: I am president of the board of the Association of Health Care Journalists.)

The statement is not only a plea to news outlets to stop doing phony journalism, but also an invitation for reporters to start exploring these deals in their own backyards. Steph Gregor, a reporter at The Other Paper in Columbus, Ohio, found some unsavory deals at Ohio State University Medical Center,which was paying local TV stations $100,000 or more to air “medical breakthrough” segments that, of course, benefited the hospital. One station vice president maintained that the segments were not ads but “vignettes,” and that he did not see anything wrong with them, ethically speaking.

But aside from the ethics, there’s a lot wrong with them. They mirror the crazy health payment structure that directs gobs of money toward high tech, expensive procedures. Hospitals compete for that kind of lucrative, high end business, and an easy way to do it is to make deals with TV stations willing to discard the ethics of good journalism. For journalists, there’s plenty to look at here, as candidates talk more about the marketplace reforms in the coming months. The take-away for journalists: The next time you hear some candidate for high office push the principles of the marketplace, think about competition in the hospital business and what it really means for the public. Has any of this competition lowered hospital bills? Has it better informed patients about x or y treatments—especially when a news outlet is barred from bringing in other points of view? Who has it really served? Those should be questions enough to get some serious reporting started on this topic.

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Trudy Lieberman is 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. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.