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Credibility, for a Fee

The line between news and advertising, especially on television, must always be clear.

In what looks like a double whammy to credibility comes word that current and former TV journalists - including CBS's Morley Safer, CNN's Aaron Brown, and Walter Cronkite - were hired to deliver short health-related "newsbreaks" for broadcast on public television.

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The New York Times reported that the segments are bought and paid for mostly by drug manufacturers and healthcare firms. In addition to the fee the companies pay the production company, WJMK, they also edit and approve the videos.

No doubt some of the information contained in the segments can be useful. But tricking an audience into believing they are independent, objective analysis, when they are paid for by special interests, is deceptive at best and unethical at worst.

News chiefs at CBS finally decided the practice didn't meet its journalism-ethics standards, and Mr. Safer, who'd been hosting such segments for some time, was pulled off. CNN and Mr. Brown also backed out of a pending deal last week. Mr. Cronkite, long retired from CBS, was reportedly ready to do so as well. PBS has rightly asked its stations not to air the segments.

The company producing the segments is also one of the oldest producers of infomercials, which often feature celebrities to lend credibility to a product. While these can seem like regular programming, they are paid for by product makers.

Both journalistic and advertising ethics require that the distinction between selling soap or drugs, and delivering the news, remains clear. Local stations must more thoroughly examine the nature of material they receive, and who pays for it, before deciding to put such prepackaged programming on the air as news.


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