Op-Ed - June 19, 2012 ~ Editors Note- * -As someone who worked in the mainstream news for 25 years I know how it used to work. That was before the 500 channel universe and all eyeballs abandoned newspapers to go online. But the profitable business models for news - both print and broadcast – are in a nosedive which means many a newsroom around the country is littered with empty desks and jobs that have gone unfilled.
TC Palm is the online news site for Florida’s Treasure Coast and Palm Beaches. The website (here) is owned by Scripps Interactive Newspapers Group, a division of the huge media conglomerate, the E. W. Scripps Co. So I took notice of an article that looks like news, but isn’t. It’s about transvaginal mesh but is notable for what it doesn’t say.
Writer Glenda Wood authored “Coughing, laughing, leaking – understanding stress incontinence.” I see no display anywhere that the article is advertising, which it appears to be. However, there is a disclaimer, “This story is contributed by a member of the Treasure Coast community and is neither endorsed nor affiliated with TCPalm.com.”
As a reader we have no idea of the relationship between the Woods and the doctor she writes about, Dr. Ralph Zipper. Did she get something of value? Was she paid or did she receive medical services?
Whether there is an exchange of anything of value is undetermined, but clearly Dr. Zipper has full access to an online newspaper therefore instant credibility in what appears to be a further burring of the lines between news and commercialism.
Dr. Zipper explains what incontinence is “caused by increases in abdominal pressure” which leads to leakage of urine during everyday activities. He advertises urodynamic testing to evaluate urinary incontinence to measure muscle activity and pressure changes in the bladder and urethra.
As far as treatments – Dr. Zipper reminds the reader that he does at least 50 successful slings each year and promises the 15 to 30 minute surgery will have you discharged the same day. He says nothing in his “advertisement” about complications due to polypropylene mesh and its movement within the body. He leaves out the FDA reports that question whether the benefits of synthetic surgical mesh trump the risks and he omits the fact that adverse events including permanent disability and deaths that have plagued thousands of women who’ve undergone what he calls the “gold standard.”
Dr. Zipper also discusses urethral injections of “material” to tighten or partially close the urethra, therefore avoiding leakage. The doctor says he does about 500 urethral injections each year with an average procedure time of three minutes.
Lastly, Dr. Zipper says there is electrical stimulation therapy, which is a painless stimulation to the muscles of the pelvis sort of like shocking kegals done twice a day for 15 minutes each. He also mentions there are pessaries and drug therapy. The writer for the good doctor includes the online address so anyone can find him.
What’s wrong with this?
1) It’s not called an advertisement. The relationship between the doctor and writer is not disclosed. Advertising is not the same thing as information which is the primary responsibility of newspapers - to report on news and public affairs in the public interest!
2) The public may not understand that this is advertising pure and simple! The newspaper is free to run advertising, indeed that’s what paid the bills for decades, but it has a responsibility of calling it advertising so as not to confuse the reader or consumer of its content.
3) How do we know it’s an ad? There is no contrasting point-of-view; no one else is spoken to; there is contact information; the story talks about one doctor only.
At least if the reader is told this is advertising, he or she can make a better informed decision. Most of us have some filter in place when we receive promotional material to not believe everything we are told.
When the lines are blurred, the consumer is unclear whether he or she is reading an ad or news.
Advertising benefits those who pay for it. That is not a good basis to make a major medical decision. Even though these are tough times for the newspaper industry, it should take responsibility to serve its community in a journalistically ethical way by doing a balanced story that includes many points-of-view, or call it advertising and be honest and upfront. #