Does advertising from Partners taint Boston health reporting and advocacy?

Speaking of bias: Disclosure: BHN has dogs in all of these battles.
Speaking of bias: BHN has dogs in all of these fights.

Former BIDMC hospital chief Paul Levy thinks “so many people in town receive financial support from Partners that the public commentary on such issues (Partners’ acquisition of two suburban hospitals)  is biased by that financial power. ” 

“Take WBUR and its Commonhealth blog.  Yes, they do cover the Partners issues and do so as fairly and comprehensively as anyone in town.  But again, prominent among WBUR’s supporters is, you guessed it, Partners Healthcare.  Here, the issue is not that PHS influences the editorial policy of WBUR:  That clearly does not happen.

In this case, the power is more subtle but no less effective: Whatever points might be made in the Commonhealth blog on this topic–read by a few thousand readers–are dramatically reduced in impact by the quid pro quo given to Partners, i.e., repeated self-serving messages on air, heard by tens of thousands of listeners during drive time. In addition, as you see above, PHS gets to place an ad on the Commonhealth site, persisting with its message day after day.”

This is an old saw. For years, critics have charged legacy media outlets with pandering to or being influenced by advertisers. The charges rarely hold up.

But with the rise of digital media, the terrain is shifting. Traditional advertising — prints ads, radio spots, billboards and TV commercials — is on the wane. Now we have content marketing, native advertising, and pre-roll.  (Disclosure: As a journalism prof and freelancer, TR has dogs, friends and family in all these fights.)

Parnters is a powerful force in the community, for better and worse. We do bristle when we hear these ad-like messages on public radio. They somehow feel more like endorsements than display ads. But, they aren’t, and they don’t dramatically reduce” the impact of WBUR health reporting for us. These potential conflicts and muddled messages are worth pointing out, but these gripes about advertising and bias in Partners coverage feel overstated.

There are real muddled media issues out there to be concerned about. What were once called and clearly marked as advertorials are now ambiguously called sponsored-content.”  Corporations, universities and hospitals now produce websites with articles that  use the tools of journalism — reporting, research and objective voice –and look like news, but are designed for marketing and advocacy.  The difference between two identical features on BU Today and Boston.com? For one, the customer is the institution; for the other, the customer is the reader. While that may not make a difference for many stories, it makes a big difference on others.

Not a problem, if you are aware of the differences. But, many of our students can’t distinguish between sites like these, sponsored content, random blogs and straight news. The answer? More media literacy. 

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