We have long berated science writers for doing cursory rewrites of press releases when they should have done more careful reporting on their own. Now The Tennessean of Nashville has neatly sidestepped that problem by running the releases themselves, avoiding the irresponsible reporting.
Clicking on the Health and Fitness link on the paper's website today, I found Children will be more active if their friends are, written by the Vanderbilt University Medical Center; Songs from the heart, again by Vanderbilt; and Try simple food substitutions for a healthier heart, written by St. Thomas Health. I also found a few stories written by reporters.
If you're wondering whether the Tennessean is likely to curb this practice now that it's been exposed in the Tracker (and I thank Poynter for alerting me), I can put your mind at rest. The Tennesean, in launching this practice, announced it with pride. Its new Thursday family section "will include medical advice from local health-care providers," wrote Carol Hudler, President and Publisher, and Maria De Varenne, Executive Editor and Vice President/News. These articles are among what they called "improvements in The Tennessean print edition and on Tennessean.com."
I don't know how to say what's wrong with this without sounding as though I'm telling a dog how to bark. Readers want news they can trust from their papers, and if they think they are getting promotional material instead of sound reporting, they are likely to drive the Tennessean to three-days-a-week publication, or worse.
Further, as media critic Steve Cavendish wonders in the Nashville Scene, how will the paper now cover Vanderbilt University Medical Center?
The changes come as the Tennessean institutes a paywall for many of its stories. Hudler and De Varenne said that because of the paywall, "The Tennessean will continue its mission of serving Middle Tennesseans for years to come."
With regard to some things, maybe. But not with regard to health news. The paper has already failed in that mission.
- Paul Raeburn