Like many TV stations, WUSA (Channel 9) in Washington airs regular feature stories on its newscasts about medical and health topics. And when it does, WUSA tends to turn to one source: the Inova hospital chain of Northern Virginia.
Inova’s doctors and patients have been interviewed for dozens of WUSA’s regular “Family Health” news features about such topics as treating sleep apnea, losing weight and preventing sports injuries. The segments typically manage to work Inova’s logo into the background. The station sometimes even offers viewers referral information to the hospital at the end of the reports.
Inova has another role in the “Family Health” features: It’s the sole sponsor of them.
The segments raise a question that has dogged the relationship between health-care organizations and TV stations across the country for years: Should such feature stories be called news reports or advertising — or an ill-defined hybrid of both?
For years, hospitals have been among local stations’ most loyal advertisers, running ads to reach viewers who live around or near their medical facilities. Hospitals and their doctors are also regular news sources, providing expert advice on TV about common health problems or medical crises.
As a result of their common interest, stations and hospitals created “partnerships” in which the station spotlighted the hospital in news pieces and hospitals sponsored the reports. The arrangement served journalists because it gave them easy access to expert sources. But it also led to such unsavory practices as hospitals feeding video news releases and other promotional material to some stations, which aired them without indicating their source.
The lines between news and marketing became so blurred that in 2005 an organization for TV news professionals, the Radio Television Digital News Association, promulgated guidelines calling for hospital source material to be clearly labeled on the air and on-screen, said Barbara Cochran, a University of Missouri journalism professor who also is a former president of the organization.
The group also instructed its members to “determine news content solely through editorial judgment and not as the result of outside influence” and to “refuse to allow the interests of ownership or management to influence news judgment and content inappropriately.”
WUSA and Inova signed a multipart agreement last year (renewed earlier this year) that covers the production and airing of commercials promoting the hospital, the creation of longer-form “infomercials” (program-length commercials), and its sponsorship of regular “Family Health” news segments. Neither side disclosed the terms.
The agreement respects the traditional “church and state” separation of news and advertising, because it doesn’t obligate WUSA to feature Inova in the “Family Health” features, said Lynn Cantwell, Inova’s assistant director of marketing. But Cantwell couldn’t recall any instances in which another institution besides Inova was featured.
WUSA president and general manager Mark Burdett said his station guards against any encroachment on its newscasts by advertisers. “We are very sensitive to that issue, and we go out of our way to make sure that something doesn’t even get up to the line, not just cross it. . . . We are very careful.”
Both Cantwell and Burdett said the station’s journalists are free to report news that might be unflattering or unfavorable to Inova. But neither executive could recall any such negative reports.
In fact, WUSA broadcast a half-hour “special” this year that offered a highly flattering view of Inova’s gene-therapy practice.
The program, “Genomics: The Power to Predict,” looked much like a news documentary, with interviews of specialists and patients who spoke enthusiastically about their treatment for life-threatening or chronic conditions. Veteran WUSA anchor Andrea Roane was the host, further enhancing the impression that it was a news report.
Roane introduced the program by describing the hospital as “home to one of the country’s leading genomic research labs. Scientific researchers and medical doctors at Inova work as a team to identify the genetic links to diseases in order to provide the most personalized care for their patients.”
In fact, “Genomics” was a
program-length commercial produced by WUSA’s advertising department under its agreement with Inova. All of the specialists featured in the program were employed by Inova, and all of the patients were or had been under Inova’s care.
WUSA never mentioned that the broadcast was a paid ad, either during it or in 30-second commercials promoting it. Instead, it ran an on-screen graphic during the program that said it was “sponsored” by Inova, a disclosure that offered little clue to its origins.
Burdett justified the program by saying it was about “a viable subject. Ultimately, it was about the fact that there is a new means by which to diagnose infirmities. We think that’s advanced medicine. We really bore down on that subject. It was a really meaningful opportunity to tell that story.”
He said Roane, one of WUSA’s best-known anchors, was selected to host it “because I don’t have anyone better. She was the best person to do it.”
Cantwell said viewers probably weren’t confused about whether “Genomics” was news or advertising because it aired at 7 p.m. on a Saturday, a time when WUSA typically doesn’t air news programs. (The station broadcasts news at 7 p.m. on weekdays, however.) “I didn’t see it as a commercial,” she said. “I saw it as a long educational vignette.”
Gary Stephenson, a spokesman for Washington’s Sibley Memorial Hospital, a competitor of Inova, said hospital companies have long sought favorable news coverage of their services — and some have sought to influence that coverage through advertising purchases “for as long as I can remember.”
But, speaking generally, Stephenson said, “buying ads in news media is a time-honored practice, and it’s perfectly acceptable. But you have to have firewalls” between advertising and news to prevent damage to the news organization and the advertiser.
Those lines have been eroding for years as the news media face ever-increasing competitive pressures, said John Carroll, a communications professor at Boston University.
“It’s happening all over the place,” said Carroll, who writes a blog about “stealth” advertising practices. “There’s a sense that [readers and viewers] no longer make the distinction between news and advertising. It’s all information somehow. The bright line that was once there is pretty much gone. I know I sound like the mayor of Fogeyville when I say this, but once people don’t care, and they don’t seem to care, it’s ‘Katie, bar the door.’ ”