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Groups express concern over media’s partnerships with health organizations


For immediate release:
August 13, 2008

Andy Schotz, Society of Professional Journalist Ethics Committee Chair,
(240) 420-2993
Scot Leadingham, Society of Professional Journalists Communications Coordinator,
(317) 927-8000 ext. 211 sleadingham@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS -- Two journalism organizations are urging news media to avoid hospital partnership deals that interfere with independent news coverage of health care.

Specifically, the Association of Health Care Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists are concerned about news media that publish or broadcast stories, reports, news releases and interviews prepared and paid for by hospitals.

The two journalism groups also criticized news organizations that accept payment for special influence.

"If our pursuit of the truth is muddied by financial arrangements with sources we cover, we lose our credibility," said Andy Schotz, the chairman of SPJ's Ethics Committee. "No matter how alluring the money is, the integrity of our journalism must come first."

This year, SPJ is giving its national ethics award to Glen Mabie, a former Wisconsin TV news director. Mabie resigned rather than go along with his station's plan to accept payment from a local hospital to produce "news segments" that had to feature employees at this hospital. Mabie will receive his award on Sept. 6 at SPJ's national convention in Atlanta.

"We salute Glen Mabie for his strong, principled stand and hope it focuses attention on the hazards of alliances between hospitals and news operations," Schotz said.

Other examples involving television news are outlined in a Columbia Journalism Review story by Trudy Lieberman, ACHJ’s president.

Earlier this year, a Maryland newspaper sold its weekly health page to a local hospital and put the hospital in charge of providing content. The arrangement was halted amid community protest after just one published issue.

Such arrangements or sponsorships blur the essential line between marketing and journalism, ACHJ and SPJ said.

These are matters of journalism ethics. The organizations are not expressing an opinion on the legality of these partnerships and they are not calling for government regulation.

The ethics codes of ACHJ and SPJ call for fair and accurate reporting and editorial independence. But editorial cutbacks, along with pressure on hospitals to market profitable services, may be eroding these standards.

In several recently reported cases, local hospitals have exerted editorial control by supplying prepackaged stories and other content to news organizations. In some but not all cases, hospitals paid for this special influence.

Even if disclosed, such arrangements violate the principles of ethical journalism and betray public trust. Content produced by hospitals does not fulfill the duty of news organizations to provide the public with independent medical reporting.

Ethical problems are compounded when media outlets fail to adequately disclose the source of the content, misleading viewers, listeners or readers into thinking it is legitimate news.

AHCJ and SPJ believe:

• News organizations should fully disclose the source of any editorial information not independently gathered, whether video, audio, photograph or print material.
• News organizations should not run prepackaged stories produced by hospitals unless they are clearly and continuously labeled as advertisements.
• News organizations should not favor advertisers or sponsors over competing health-care providers when choosing sources or story topics and should strive to employ a wide variety of sources.
• News organizations should develop guidelines for the public disclosure of sponsors and advertisers. These guidelines should prohibit news personnel from appearing in or participating in sponsored programming or advertisements.

Our journalistic mission requires us to hold doctors, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and government agencies accountable to the public. In doing so, we commit to fair and transparent reporting of medical issues.


AHCJ, based in Columbia, Mo., is an independent, nonprofit membership organization of more than 1,000 health reporters and editors in the United States and more than 20 other nations. Along with its Center for Excellence in Health Care Journalism, it is dedicated to advancing public understanding of health care issues and improving the quality, accuracy and visibility of health reporting, writing and editing.

The Society of Professional Journalists, based in Indianapolis, is the nation’s most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry through the daily work of its nearly 10,000 members; works to inspire and educate current and future journalists through professional development; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press through its advocacy efforts.

Codes of Ethics:

The SPJ Code of Ethics calls on journalists to "Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two."
The SPJ code and AHCJ’s Statement of Principles say journalists should:
• Be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know
• Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility
• Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.

For AHCJ’s Statement of Principles, go to healthjournalism.org. SPJ Code of Ethics is available at spj.org/ethicscode.asp.

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, the Society of Professional Journalists promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For further information about SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.


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