Public service . . . or “news-mercials”

The blending of television news and advertising

By Jill Johnson Keeney

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 1(April 1989), p. 3.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.


“Go to Kroger and pick up a test kit, then send it to Humana Hospital University to get the results.”

That sounds like a line from a commercial. In fact, it’s a tag line from a 15-part news series that WHAS-TV in Louisville, Ky., ran on colorectal cancer. Most often, Jean West, the station’s health reporter, delivered the line. “I really resented it,” she says, “the whole project seemed so commercial.”

To most journalists, the separation of news from advertising has been as basic a rule as the separation of church from state. But a new trend in broadcasting is making that separation less clear. Smith Kline Clinical Laboratories can take credit for what representative Michelle Barnes refers to as “the formula.” It works something like this: A TV station teams up with a hospital and a drug chain to promote a mass community health screening.

It can be for cholesterol, colorectal cancer, vision, glucose or even drinking water.

The benefits of this form of newsmaking are clear: The test kit manufacturer sells a lot of kits. The drug chain, which buys and distributes the kits free or for a nominal charge, gets publicity and customers into its stores. The hospital, which processes the kits, also gets publicity, and usually referrals.

The television station gets kudos for community involvement and can forge relationships with advertisers. And TV viewers get screened inexpensively for a health problem.

The colorectal cancer screening that West worked on makes a good case study, since, as Smith Kline’s Barnes says, “We have done this program 300 times, in almost every market there is. “In some markets, as many as 200,000 test kits were distributed. That puts a lot of money into Smith Kline’s coffers. It also saves a number of lives.

Larry Smith, news director of WHAS television, says, “I initiated the series here. I had it forced on me in South Bend, where I worked before, and resisted it for all the reasons people here resisted it. But the program turned out to be a lifesaver.”

“How can it be unethical to make available something that saves lives?” he asks.

West wasn’t the only WHAS employee who resisted Smith’s plan. The anchors of the 11 PM news found ways to run out of time for the story. Once, Smith called them during the broadcast and demanded they run the colorectal report. By the time he wrote the above memo, Smith says he was “thoroughly pissed that they’d dropped the ball. We do things here by a written plan, and no one was following the plan.”

Smith points out that WHAS made no money on the project, and predicts that TV stations will be doing a lot more of these screenings in the future.

“All the research regarding successful TV news operations shows that stations involved with the community have a leg up on confidence and viewer support,” he says.

But are these series public service, as Smith claims, or “news-mercials,” as another journalist has dubbed them?

Philip Meyer, an ethicist at the University of North Carolina, is not disturbed by the trend. “Journalists assume that if someone is making a buck, something’s wrong. This is not always the case.”

“If the object of news is to give people information so they can better their lives, what can better a life more than saving it?” he asks. “The ethical problem would be advertising disguised as news. That would put your credibility at risk. But there was no deception with this series.”

Dr. Tom Cooper of Emerson College points out that to evaluate the ethics of a situation, ethicists look at “who can be helped, and who can be hurt.”

In this case, “who can be hurt is less obvious,” he says. The danger is that “as soon as a precedent of veiled advertising is set, then other forms of it can become acceptable.

Other questions Meyer and Cooper suggest considering are: Is there a better test kit available? Could the time spent on this series be better spent

on another public health issue that doesn’t happen to have a sponsor?

News director Smith is not bothered by these questions. “You could make this argument about everything we do.”

Ethicist Meyer expects to see more of these partnerships between advertising and editorial. “In this age of information overload, it’s harder to get people’s attention. Advertisers are all looking for weird new ideas.”

And the health screening “news-mercial” is not likely to disappear. Barnes says that only once has she been turned down flat. “The major objection I get,” she says, “is, ‘Well, we’re doing a cholesterol in May. We just don’t have time for this right now.”