TV NEWS: Hospital Ad Deals Spur Ethical Concerns
An increasing number of hospitals are striking advertising deals with television news shows in exchange for "valuable publicity plus credit for providing helpful information" during broadcast segments on health topics, raising ethical concerns as the line blurs between "what's for sale and who controls the news," the Baltimore Sun reports. Under the arrangements, hospitals buy advertisements on the news shows, and in return, their doctors are often featured in health segments. For example, WBAL-TV in Baltimore runs "The Woman's Doctor" segments on Monday nights, dealing with women's health care issues. The Sun reports that the majority of health care providers featured on the segment come from Mercy Medical Center, which has a contract with the station to buy 13 30-second ads per week, totaling an estimated $200,000 a year. Such relationships are cause for concern, according to Al Tompkins, director of the broadcast group of the Poynter Institute of Media Studies, since what is broadcasted "pretends to be journalism." He said, "Let's call is what it is. It's a commercial." However, WBAL President and General Manager Bill Fine disagreed, arguing that the newscasts "are not for sale" and the station maintains "total editorial control" over the segments. He added, "Whatever (the hospitals) pay us is in exchange for the exact amount in advertising. The time we provide for the doctors is in exchange for their helping us get (the report) together." Still, some contend that those kind of relationships are questionable, particularly around health care issues, as many viewers are unaware of such deals. L.G. Blanchard, director of health sciences news and community relations at the University of Washington in Seattle, said, "With health news, I can't think of a topic where it's more important for the public to have confidence that the source that's interviewed is the best source available. The relationship is unholy." The viewers are the "real loser[s]," Tompkins asserts. He said, "The question then is, how independent are (the newscasts) in their report? When's the last time the television station did a story on the morbidity rate of that hospital? When's the last time you saw critical coverage?" (Fesperman/Salganik, 4/5).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.