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Is sponsorship of health content on the web unethical? Journalism professionals weigh in

Does is strike you as odd that WebMD’s breastfeeding page is funded by Gerber Good Start? Or that Babble’s equivalent was previously sponsored by Similac? Would you find it disconcerting if you were a writer and your editor inserted links for baby lotion and commercial genetic testing in your blog on heart failure?

If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, you’re not alone; in fact, a recent Covering Health post claimed the creep of advertising into health content on the web has everyone from mommy bloggers to old-time journalists a bit worried.

Curious about that concern, I put a few questions to Ted Glasser, PhD, a Stanford communication professor who focuses on media ethics and responsibility, and Barbara Strauch, deputy science editor at the New York Times, who’s responsible for the paper’s health and medical coverage. Is there anything inherently unethical about sponsored health-related content? I wondered. Should health-related content be held to stricter standards given that consumers might substitute it for actual medical counsel?

“Sponsored content is a very bad idea,” Glasser told me:

…not because any particular writer will be corrupted by sponsorship but because over time it can create incentives for certain kinds of content and disincentives for other kinds of content. In short, sponsored content runs the risk of undermining the independence of judgment that has long been the hallmark of reputable journalism.

Strauch agreed:

The bottom line is, yes, I do see something wrong with having sponsored links in health content. Here at The Times, we certainly put links in articles but they are links that we choose ourselves and they are not paid for by others. We keep a line around the ads, too, to separate them from the content. And while I think there might be a special issue with health-related journalism since we are dealing with consumers who are sometimes making life and death decisions, I think this rule applies to ALL journalism. If we have sponsored links in a political story taking readers to a webpage of a politician who has paid us money, that is public relations, not journalism. I know this line is merging in some places. But in most cases that is a bad thing, not a good thing. It’s important that readers trust our information. Otherwise, what kind of service are we providing?

The key, concluded R.B. Brenner, a Stanford visiting lecturer and former editor at the Washington Post, is to maintain a wall between commerce and content. In the case of WebMD, for example, “the financial involvement of Gerber creates a serious perception problem,” he said. “How can I trust that Gerber’s interests are not somehow, even subconsciously, being favored? When you have trouble trusting the content because it might be influenced by the commerce, red flags should be raised.”

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