Propaganda in Health News: An Epidemic of Fake Health Stories

A feature article in the March/April 2007 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review discusses and labels as an epidemic the pervasive role hospitals play in producing “feel good” stories that are essentially advertisements for themselves and feeding the stories to television stations that run the stories as purported health news on their local TV news programs.

The stories chosen tend to promote expensive specialties and procedures like bariatric surgery for obesity and gamma knife surgery for brain cancer at the expense of stories about less profitable diagnoses, like AIDS or pneumonia, care for the uninsured, or critical stories such as hospital infection rates, medical mistakes or poor care.

Perhaps the most egregious example cited in the feature involves the partnership between the CBS station in Philadelphia with Temple University Hospital, which produces stores called Temple LifeLines specials. Such stories included two touting the hospitals heart transplant and bone marrow transplant programs.

Somehow left out of the stories was the fact that at the time the specials were produced and aired, Temple was on confidential probation by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) for inflating its patients conditions by saying that they were sicker than they actually were, a practice that is unfair to those lower on the list, but can boost volume and revenue for the hospital. UNOS is a private, nonprofit group that has a federal contract to ensure safety and equity in the nations transplant system.

Another example of this alliance between hospitals and local TV news is a story produced by the Cleveland Clinic News Service that was broadcast on a local Fox channel. This particular story concerned a 15-year-old who had sprained her ankle who was getting better due to the computer-guided rehabilitation program that Cleveland Clinic researchers call the worlds first virtual-only gym. But the person who identified herself as the television station reporter was in fact the executive producer of the Cleveland Clinic News Service.

The hospital-TV station partnerships may violate the standards of the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA). One RTNDA standard states that advertisers should have no influence over news content. Another standard states that a news operations online product should clearly separate commercial and editorial content.

Nonetheless, in some cases hospital public relations people decide the story and may write or edit the script. The hospitals may be effectively co-opting the stations journalistic duties. Public-policy wise, the partnerships arguably contribute to the continuing rise in health care costs.

The Mayo Clinic has documented how stories in its weekly Medical Edge news service about profitable, high-tech procedures have stimulated increased demand for them by patients. Most of those patients are no doubt covered by insurance.

Fortunately, there is in this country a consumer empowerment movement for transparency in health care. The movement envisions that patients will take responsibility for choosing the best care by using scientific and objective data. But this supposes that such data is available to the medical consumer. The TV-facilitated marketing and branding activities of hospitals may obfuscate the data and dampen the success of this patient advocacy movement.

The hospital industry does not have a monopoly on blurring the line does between news and propaganda. Pfizer, Intel and General Motors and even the U.S. government has been caught doing this. In 2004, the Education Department promoted its education law with a video that comes across as a news story but not identify the government as the source of the report. Like the Cleveland Clinic example discussed herein above, the “reporter” does not identify herself as being someone hired for the promotional video.

A similar technique was employed by the Health and Human Services Department in promoting the new Medicare drug program, a technique judged covert propaganda in violation of federal law by the Government Accountability Office.

The GOA later found that the Office of National Drug Control Policy distributed phony prepackaged news reports that included a “suggested live intro” for anchors to read, interviews with Washington officials and a closing that mimics a typical broadcast news sign off. The “reporter” therein also failed to disclose that he was working under government contract.

The viewers think that they are looking at a genuine news story and are unaware that their tax dollars are being used to produce these improper attempts to influence public opinion.

Last October, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) held a news conference to brief reporters on wildfires in Southern California. It turned out that the “reporters” attending the news conference were not reporters at all; they were employees of FEMA who asked softball questions designed to give FEMA an opportunity to tout its response to the fires. FEMA later apologized for its fake press conference.

At least 20 federal agencies, including the Defense Department and the Census Bureau, have made and distributed hundreds of television news segments. Many were subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgement of the government’s role in their production.

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