Filling Gaps With Expert Help

Mar 12, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Local television stations don’t outsource their sports or weather coverage, but when it comes to health and medical news, many have decided the field is best left to experts.

More than 150 stations subscribe to Winter Park, Fla.-based syndicator Ivanhoe Broadcast News’ four medical news services (including the broader “Discoveries and Breakthroughs Inside Science,” a joint venture with the American Institute of Physics).

A competitor, Allentown, Pa.-based Medstar Television, provides similar reports to about 90 stations, in packages dubbed “Medstar Source” and “Medstar Advances.”

Ivanhoe chief executive Marjorie Bekaert Thomas was an attorney before starting Ivanhoe 25 years ago with a business partner, a television reporter who wanted to go freelance. Today Ivanhoe’s “Medical Breakthroughs” feeds stations 13 stories a month to use at will. Stories, which run 90 seconds to two minutes, come with a voiceover track and are meant to be customized locally.

Ivanhoe’s 15-person staff is augmented by some 70 freelance producers, camerapeople and audio staffers around the country. Once story ideas are vetted, they are assigned to a producer, who then reports them out and sends them back to headquarters with a draft script before they are finalized, edited and put on a reel, Ms. Thomas said.

At Medstar, founded in 1980, the work is handled in-house, said Ron Petrovich, vice president of medical news sales. The staff of 13 includes a full-time medical researcher, a Medstar employee for 19 years, who must vet all stories, he said. Paul Dowling, one of the two original partners and now the company’s sole owner, is also the executive producer of Court TV’s “Forensic Files.”

“Medstar Source” provides stations with five 90-second reports each week on health and wellness topics including technology, diet, nutrition, allergies and cancer; “Medstar Advances” are 30-second patient-oriented reports on medical developments. All are meant to be customized by stations. “We’re very much private-label,” said Mr. Petrovich. “We don’t push the Medstar brand, we push the station brand.”

Because its main service is focused on medical advances, Ivanhoe works closely with many major research institutions. “They are our biggest source of stories,” said Ms. Thomas, noting the doctors have already been vetted. The institutions, in turn, “like the fact that our stories get played,” she said. “They want us to cover more stories than we do.”

Kara Gavin, lead public relations representative for the University of Michigan Health System, said she has worked often with the two services on stories coming out of her research institution and has been impressed with their judgment, adding that the services often have time and resources that “local stations may not.”

Gary Schwitzer, head of the graduate medical journalism program at the University of Minnesota, is troubled by the syndicated reports, however. “Even if you only look at the title of the product,” he said, “and the nature of the stories chosen, it throws the balance off.”

Reporting mainly about advances and breakthroughs, Mr. Schwitzer added, may give the viewing audience “a very skewed, rose-colored, glitzy, glamorous, Oz-like view of the world.”

“What’s the point of putting something on Topeka TV if it’s not available in Topeka?” Mr. Schwitzer said. With nearly 47 million people in the U.S. without health insurance, stations should focus more on basic needs than on medical advances that many can’t afford, he added.

Mr. Schwitzer said the problem lies with the “supposedly independent editorial decision-makers” at stations who choose to use the reports, not with the companies themselves.

Several station clients declined to discuss their use of the services.

Supplemental Material

Generally, most stations would prefer to cover stories with their own producers and reporters, but consumer interest in health reports is so great, in Ms. Thomas’ experience, that they like to supplement their work with the syndicated fare, which lets them cover national stories outside their local territories.

“I’ve been a news director at several stations and I know how resources can be stretched,” said Mr. Petrovich. “That’s why we need to deliver [the reports] with bulletproof information.”

Medstar is cautious about proclaiming cures, Mr. Petrovich said, noting, “We don’t want to report on a clinical trial and say there’s a cure for cancer.”

He said the assumption among its staff is that Medstar is delivering potentially lifesaving information and the reports could send viewers to their physicians, “so we want to make sure it sends them in the right direction.” Patients, he noted, “are becoming more advocates for themselves.”

Ms. Thomas said Ivanhoe’s guidelines call for any new developments reported on to have reached at least Phase II of their clinical trials. “We don’t like to do stories with lab rats,” or report on developments from which consumers can’t yet derive any benefit.

Mr. Schwitzer pointed out that even drugs and treatments that pass their trials can get turned down by the Food and Drug Administration and might never reach the market, providing false hope to viewers. By setting cutoffs at Phase II or Phase III trials, he said, “You’re going to end up hyping unproven and potentially unsafe ideas.”

Some doctors, too, have told Ivanhoe that it should wait longer to report developments. “But the whole purpose of the news business is to give consumers news right away. We have a great deal of respect for consumers to understand that this is new,” Ms. Thomas said. “Consumers are not stupid.”

Nor will doctors be swayed by a short report on a television station, she said. Viewers must simply “ask the right questions,” she said. “We’re very active at saying that to consumers.”

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