When TV news departments partner with local medical centers

It’s not a new phenomenon. In fact, it’s troubling how old and widespread it is.

But when TV news departments partner with, and sell news time to local medical centers, you can take the Radio-Television Digital News Association’s code of ethics and throw it out the window.

Blythe Bernhard reports in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “In St. Louis, the latest media/hospital partnership is a campaign from Barnes-Jewish Hospital and local NBC affiliate KSDK (Channel 5) called ‘8 Ways to Prevent Cancer.'”

The hospital’s marketing director said she wasn’t comfortable discussing how much the hospital paid KSDK for the project.

But Bernhard reports:

In a similar deal launched in 2003, HCA hospitals in Kansas City paid $1.5 million for a three-year partnership with CBS affiliate KCTV that included commercials and news segments featuring doctors from the local hospitals, according to a 2007 report from the Columbia Journalism Review.

I’m quoted in the story:

“It looks prestigious, it looks clean, it looks expert, but this is information that is coming from and being bought by one medical center source,” said Gary Schwitzer, publisher of Health News Review. “Who has vetted that to say that is the best information, and when are we going to hear from other players in town?”

Regarding journalism ethics, compare what the TV station is doing with what professional journalism organizations have stated – from Bernhard’s reporting:

“The Radio Television Digital News Association’s guidelines for maintaining journalistic integrity in the face of financial pressures say “news operations should not show favoritism to advertisers.”In response to a rise in hospital-media partnerships, the Association of Health Care Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists released guidelines in 2008 stating newsrooms should not favor sponsoring hospitals on story topics or sources and should prohibit news staff from appearing in sponsored programming or ads.

As the representative of the KSDK/Barnes-Jewish campaign, (KSDK health reporter) Kay Quinn appears in commercials for Siteman community events, and the cancer center’s website includes an “Ask Kay Quinn” link.

Quinn referred questions to (her) news director.

He said, “I’m happy for anybody to promote my talent and to promote the newsgathering operation we have here.”


Let me remind readers about a little-known, too-soon-forgotten hero of mine. The Society of Professional Journalists in 2008 gave its Ethics in Journalism award to Eau Claire, WI news director Glen Mabie who resigned over an ethical disagreement with station management over a very similar hospital “partnership” with his station.

But these codes, if not discussed, if not followed, are worthless window dressing.

Addendum: Given a recent FCC action about news reports supplied by outside interests, it will be interesting to see how the St. Louis medical center and TV station disclose their relationship – and whether this will be another matter for FCC scrutiny.

Gary Schwitzer has specialized in health care journalism in his more than 30-year career in radio, television, interactive multimedia and the Internet.  He is publisher of HealthNewsReview.org.

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