Just under half of American adults get their news mostly from local television, and this is especially true for the older among us who also happen to be the heaviest users of medical services. But with local TV content hitting new highs for sheer volume—an average of 5.7 hours every day—watchdog groups are expressing a growing concern about the integrity of broadcast health information.
Healthnewsreview.org, an independent, nonprofit group that works on the public’s behalf to improve the depth, quality, and accuracy of health information, has reported with increasing urgency about pay to play, sponsored, and industry influenced and manipulated medical news.
It has tweaked local TV stations, from Providence, R.I., to Minneapolis to Seattle for airing reports and shows without fully disclosing that they have been paid for, partnered with, or otherwise swayed by medical powers, including the Mayo Clinic, the University of Washington Medical Center, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center—and an acupuncturist who represented himself as a medical doctor but whose state Oriental Medicine license was under revocation.
In some cases, TV reporters have taken fully prepared materials and broadcast them as their own, even hyping their content far beyond what their creators envisioned. Some of the reports have been carried in local newscasts, while other outside funded and prepped information has been presented in longer specials or news features.
Experts say the pieces lack basic transparency and disclosures so viewers could best judge whether they offer accurate, fair, and factual health information or whether they effectively turn local TV news into PR machines for wealthy medical centers or media savvy practitioners. Are smaller community hospitals or lesser known doctors providing at lower cost and equal convenience the same kinds of medical services and safe, quality care that bigger, richer academic medical centers promote themselves with? Viewers may not learn this if major institutions throw their money and influence around in reports or specials they partner with local stations on and pay for, directly (with commercials) or indirectly (by providing expert sources or specially developed content).
Concerns about the independence and integrity of the news aren’t limited to local TV, or television networks. Healthnewsreview.org has raised tough questions about local newspapers’ partnerships with health care institutions, a well-known magazine’s sales of sponsorships and control of paid-speaker placements at a nationally covered health care conference in tony Aspen, Colo., and, of course, Big Alcohol’s recently publicized financial support not only for long-term study of booze’s potential harms but also for journalistic training in writing about research.
Media scholars and critics have watched with dismay, though, over economic shifts that continue to transform local TV news. Stations, with their news departments as solid fiscal performers, have become more valuable, and a sector consolidation for scale has put five corporations at the fore in broadcast ownership with each holding hundreds of local outlets.
Sinclair, one of these burgeoning local TV groups, has come under sharp criticism (see video) for its centralized and what some say is partisan control of its stations’ broadcast content. Washingtonians are familiar with this critique, as they have seen Sinclair’s conservative-leaning editorial approaches following its 2014 acquisition of eight, formerly Allbritton stations, including WJLA, the ABC-affiliate serving the District, Virginia, and Maryland.
Distant, corporate owners needn’t push partisan points of view, of course, to undercut the optimal First Amendment roles of local TV stations. They simply can be zealous in their bottom line focus, forcing local news executives to seek economically beneficial “relationships” of all kinds with community influentials, including big-name doctors and big hospitals in the area.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, I also see the huge value to them and to society as a whole in the basic idea of informed consent. It’s a fundamental concept at the core of any free society: Each person has a right to decide what to do with his or her own body, as long as he or she doesn’t hurt someone else. Doctors, hospitals, and medical scientists, though they may be more knowledgeable about some specialized topics, also are flawed and human. They may not be as forthcoming as they should with patients about their care. They still must always provide patients the important facts so they can make intelligent decisions about what treatment to have and where to get them.
For our society to make its best choices about medical services and health care, we, too, must be well, fully and fairly informed. Skepticism—though not cynicism— always should be news consumers’ guide. But we should not be forced to scrutinize every scrap of content brought before us, asking if it is commercial hype or impartial, independent, and useful medical news. Local TV stations, because they operate in the public space of our shared airwaves, owe their audiences more not less integrity, transparency, fairness, and accuracy in their coverage of critical public concerns, including medicine and health. Profiteering and corporate consolidation and control can’t be allowed to get in the way of our democracy’s vital need for sound information.