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KPBS Reporter Kenny Goldberg looks at the truth behind television health reports

Audio

Aired 4/19/09

Most Americans don't get their health information from doctors or professional journals, they get it from watching television. Health stories are a frequent feature on many TV newscasts. But what kind of information do they provide? KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg takes a look.

How does a health story get on the air? Well, sometimes, it all starts with a pitch from a PR firm.

Pitch Sent Wednesday at 10:24 a.m: "This is Bianca, I'm calling regarding a email I sent you yesterday. It's regarding the new FDA approval of a new sunscreen, and it provides the most complete broad spectrum and high spectrum UVA and UVB coverage."

Boy, that sure sounds impressive. And here's the kicker.

Pitch: "This is really newsworthy, it's popping up all over the news, CNN and everything. So, just wanted to see if this is something you think we might be able to get on your show. We have the senior development and research guy here in San Diego, so you would be able to speak with him."

So you take the bait, and interview the company executive.

Company : "Well, I would call it revolutionary to the U.S. market. It's photo stable, which means you can put it on, you don't have worry about it degrading during the day and losing its effectiveness.

Was this well-coordinated, well-financed effort effective? You bet.

TV News Montage: "Now a move that will change the future of sun care, and skin care. The FDA, clearing an over-the-counter sunscreen packing a popular ingredient that blocks UVA rays, here's Mike Hochman on that. Well, apparently a revolutionary sunscreen is coming to a store near you, and it can supposedly do a much better job protecting you from the sun's rays. From the health desk.

Every day, TV news stations are inundated with pitches from PR firms, drug companies, and others in the healthcare industry. And whether it's about the latest sunscreen or miracle diet, TV news loves to do health stories.

But some journalists think the topics leave something to be desired.

Gary Schwitzer: "We cover the new, the exciting, the glamorous, often the unproven, while not covering stories about health policy and health care reform."

Gary Schwitzer used to head up the medical news unit at CNN. Today, he directs the graduate program in health journalism at the University of Minnesota.
Schwitzer did a study of TV newscasts during the 2004 presidential campaign. From January through November, he monitored the ten and eleven o'clock casts of three stations in three major markets: Chicago, Seattle, and Tampa. Each of these news outlets had previously won the prestigious Edward R. Murrow award.
Schwitzer says what he found was shocking. For example, consider how the stations handled one of the most important heath care issues.
Schwitzer: "You know, in that period of time, in these three industry-leading stations, there was a grand total of one story on the uninsured. And that happened to be a story about a guy with melanoma, who didn't have insurance. The reason the story got covered was, he won the state lottery."

Schwitzer has another gripe with how TV news handles health stories. He says most local stations don't have a designated health reporter.

But San Diego's NBC affiliate does.

Peggy Pico is the medical reporter for channel 7/39. Before she got into the news business, Pico worked as a nurse for ten years.

Pico says her medical background helps her put stories in proper context. And she has some tips for reporters on how to improve the quality of health news.

Peggy Pico: "If something goes on the air and only 12 people were studied in Alaska, find out about it. If it's paid for by, you know, a grape juice company saying that grape juice will heal all things, say that. You know, you've just got to be a fair journalist and you've gotta be a concise journalist, and be honest about where your sources are."

Gary Schwitzer thinks the single biggest problem in health reporting is the commercial influence on the end product.
Schwitzer: "There is such an entanglement of conflicts of interest at all levels of the dissemination of health and medical news. And who gets lost in all of this? It's the news and healthcare consumer.

In the lingo of television producers, health segments are referred to as a franchise, because they're so lucrative.
They score high in the ratings, and they're a magnet for advertising dollars. In fact, the amount of money the five TV networks receive from drug companies alone, tops a billion dollars a year.
Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.

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