AHCJ weighs in on FCC broadcast transparency proposal

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

AHCJ is supporting a new effort to require broadcasters to report their funding sources online, because that would make it easier for people to recognize infomercials that masquerade as news.

The practice of broadcasting reports that, unbeknownst to viewers or listeners, are paid for by hospitals or other health-care organizations has long been a concern. For example, in 2010 a health reporter for a CBS affiliate in Los Angeles appeared in a segment interviewing a hospital’s chief medical officer – paid for by that hospital. The segment looked like news but the hospital considered it advertising. Viewers were left to guess.

Now, the Federal Communications Commission is proposing rules requiring that sponsorships be posted online in a searchable database. Currently, such information is available only to people who go to the station and ask to review paper files.

In comments filed Thursday with the FCC, AHCJ President Charles Ornstein wrote that AHCJ’s principles oppose giving favored treatment to advertisers and special interests, and having a personal or financial interest in a company being covered.

“Such practices are especially pernicious when applied to matters of health and health care – as they often are – because people make decisions affecting their well-being based on such reports,” Ornstein wrote. “The result is harm to individuals who make the wrong choice based on biased information and increased costs in the health care system that we all pay for.

“Such deceptiveness also threatens the credibility of all journalism. A bright line must be drawn between those who say what they’re paid to say and those who make an independent effort to find out what’s true.”

In 2008, AHCJ joined with the Society of Professional Journalists to provide guidelines opposing what has been called “pay for play.”

For more information about the FCC rules and the issues that prompted them, see this Washington Post story and this column in Columbia Journalism Review. The rules can be found here, and if you’d like to file your own comment, go here. (Use proceeding number 00-168.)

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