Blurring the line between news and ads

TV stations' deals with local hospitals raise ethical issues

April 05, 2000|By Dan Fesperman and M. William Salganik | Dan Fesperman and M. William Salganik,SUN STAFF

Tune in to WBAL-TV's Monday night news programs and you'll see "The Woman's Doctor," a look at women's health topics with reporter Donna Hamilton. On Tuesday evenings, Hamilton often does a similar spot geared toward children's health, "Caring for Kids."

Watch them enough and you'll notice that every patient and doctor on "The Woman's Doctor" comes from Mercy Medical Center. The ones on "Caring for Kids" are from University of Maryland Medical Center.

The hospitals buy ads as part of those exclusive arrangements, and for them the result is valuable publicity plus credit for providing helpful information.

Any benefits to WBAL come attached to ethical questions over what's for sale and who controls the news. It is a tricky area where information borders on infomercial, especially when viewers aren't told of the deals that shaped the newscast.

Similar issues crop up in a wide spectrum of practices in which news media -- including The Sun --can appear to be cozying up to their ever-more-competitive advertisers in the health care industry.

In the case of WBAL's arrangements with the hospitals, "it pretends to be journalism but it isn't close," said Al Tompkins, a former TV news director who heads the broadcast group of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. "Let's call it what it is. It's a commercial."

Bill Fine, WBAL-TV's president and general manager, disagreed, saying his station's newscasts are not for sale and that the newsroom maintains "total editorial control" over the segments even though the hospitals dictate the sources.

"Whatever [the hospitals] pay us is in exchange for the exact amount in advertising," he said. "The time we provide for the doctors is in exchange for their helping us get [the report] together."

`Value-added feature'

In both deals, advertising and news arrangements are covered by the same contract, hospital officials said. "I guess you'd characterize the news segment as a value-added feature of the contract," said Ellen Beth Levitt, University of Maryland Medical Center's director of media relations.

The contractual marriage of news coverage and advertising turns such an arrangement into "a quid pro quo," says health marketing consultant Russell Frank of RAFrank Associates.

"You're not sponsoring it so that then they go out and talk to somebody at UCLA," Frank said. "It's geared to getting your docs on the tube."

That kind of relationship bothers critics such as L. G. Blanchard, director of health sciences news and community relations at the University of Washington in Seattle.

"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," Blanchard said. "The relationship is unholy."

Such contracts can be found in other markets, too, and WBAL is not the only local media outlet that links some form of its medical coverage to hospital advertising.

The Sun, for example, produces health care "advertorial" sections several times a year. Each page is marked "A Publication of the Baltimore Sun's Marketing Department," the sections are printed in a different typeface from that used for the rest of the newspaper, and stories aren't produced by the news staff.

But the size of a hospital's "article" in the section is based on how much advertising it buys, and local media buyer Judy Green said she sees no difference between the newspaper sections and what WBAL does. In neither case, she said, is advertising directly buying news coverage.

The Sun also sells commercial time to University of Maryland Medical Center on its weekly high schools sports television show, which runs on WMAR. As part of the ads a doctor from the hospital discusses a sports medicine topic.

WMAR and WJZ also have close relationships with local hospitals, and their advertising agreements can lead indirectly to appearances on newscasts by a hospital's doctors.

For example, MedStar Health, an alliance of seven hospitals in the Baltimore-Washington area, advertises on WMAR more than on competing stations, sponsoring WMAR's health news segments. When the station needs to interview a doctor for its newscast, said Corbin Riemer, MedStar's vice president for marketing, "I think it's fair to say that WMAR turns to us more than the other stations do."

The arrangement is not exclusive, he said, and the ad contract doesn't guarantee MedStar doctors time on the newscast.

Similarly, WJZ has no exclusive agreement to interview doctors from only one hospital for any of its news segments, said Jay Newman, vice president and general manager. "We have had inquiries over the years about that type of linkage," Newman said. "In those cases, we've chosen to toe the line. We've found other ways to get the advertiser's message across."

WBAL's relationship with Mercy goes back to early 1994, when the station's advertising people approached the hospital with an idea they had picked up from a station in Florida.

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