As a TV viewer, how do you know when reporters are presenting their own work? And does it matter if the format subtly encourages the audience to think a journalist has done work he has not?
This question, which has troubled TV critics for years, arose when I looked at the work of local TV health reporters and found they routinely use recycled reports from other sources without giving credit.
Here's an April 8 report by Linda Hurtado of WFTS-Ch. 28:
"Studies show art eases the anxiety, confusion and frustration common in Alzheimer's," Hurtado reported, as images of aged patients using paints flashed beneath the ABC Action News logo. "It strengthens analytical and logical brain function. One study shows half of patients in an art program had a significant improvement in symptoms."
And here is a report presented the day before by WQAD in Moline, Ala.: "Studies show art eases the anxiety, confusion and frustration common in Alzheimer's. It strengthens analytical and logical brain function. One study shows half of patients in an art program had a significant improvement in symptoms."
At least eight other stations, from WFTV in Orlando to NewsChannel 5 in Nashville, used the same story — their station's logo stuck on the same footage, with the voice of their local anchor reading the same words.
In the print world, presenting another outlet's work as your own without attribution would be called plagiarism. But TV stations often present stories written by other news services or affiliate stations without notifying viewers.
Along with WFTS, every Tampa Bay area station with designated health reporters — WTVT-Ch. 13, WFLA-Ch. 8 and Bay News 9 — does the same thing at one time or another with their health reports, though they also develop original stories.
Many TV professionals say this is a routine practice. TV reporting, after all, is a team sport where producers, camera operators and on-air reporters collaborate to create a single story.
I've always felt reports branded with the name of a specific personality are different. There's an expectation that health reports bearing Hurtado's name were actually reported by her — and the fact that stations don't really identify when their personalities are reading reports developed by a news service, indicates they know this, too.
Critics of this practice say it helps make local TV reporting more generic across the board, with station Web sites and broadcasts across the country featuring the same story within days of each other.
It's also a further blurring of ethical lines prompted by economics, allowing a single reporter to present more stories in a week than he could possibly research on his own.
Ask some local TV professionals whether this misleads viewers, and their denials are swift and definitive:
"Television is a personal medium, and Linda Hurtado has worked hard to build that trust with viewers," said WFTS news director Chris Jadick, who estimated about 30 percent of Hurtado's health reports are rerecorded scripts with no original reporting. "It brings the material to the viewer in a way they can understand."
WFTS buys its material from a service called Ivanhoe Broadcast News in Winter Park, which does its own reporting, writes scripts and shoots footage. Stations can air the stories as Ivanhoe has assembled them, or record new narration featuring local personalities and place their own station logos on the footage.
Two signs a reporter may be reading a script generated elsewhere: the lack of local sources and no footage of the reporter at the scene.
"(Stations) treat us like one of their own producers . . . and it's their business whether they put a credit on the story or not," said Ivanhoe president Marjorie Thomas, noting that Ivanhoe currently services about 200 clients across the country. "We feel like we're saving lives every time a story goes on the air."
At WFLA, where medical news managing editor Irene Maher sometimes voices reports from a news service called Medstar, news director Don North says he would love to have three medical reporters turning out original stories every day. But the station doesn't have the resources.
"If I thought we were harming people with a common practice that has been going on in the TV industry for a long time," North said, "I wouldn't do it."
Maher said she tries to find spots for local experts in Medstar stories, but places an emphasis on getting information to viewers. "I'm not trying to mislead anyone," she said. "You don't have the manpower or budget to go all over the country, and these stories can provide important information."
Still, even well-known national reports such as former CNN reporter Peter Arnett and ex-CBS anchor Dan Rather were criticized for fronting controversial reports largely prepared by others.
And would it hurt the stories so much to feature a line of onscreen text or a credit line in the script saying where the words and pictures are coming from?
Bay News 9 offers reports from a group of doctors dubbed Health Team 9. On March 20, Dr. Robert DiMasi voiced a report on how a new brain-imaging technique is helping doctors understand memory — essentially reading a script released by Ivanhoe in February.
"We use our medical expertise to evaluate whether the topics are relevant," said DiMasi, who works at a clinic in Clearwater. "If we're comfortable with the story, then we would present it."
Officials at Bay News 9 reacted strongly to the notion that their practice might be misdirecting viewers, saying the majority of the 14 health stories they air each week are original. They compared the practice of retracking scripts with newspapers publishing stories from the Associated Press wire service (though newspapers usually label wire service stories as non-staff-generated copy).
Because Ivanhoe and Medstar are news services, said bay area news managers, they presumably are not pushing specific policy or commercial agendas in their reporting.
But Bay News 9 news director Mike Gautreau said the news channel moved to clearly label online content used verbatim from Ivanhoe after interviews for this column, because that material isn't vetted in the same way as scripts for on-air reports.
"I don't think the viewer feels the information is less valid, as long as the information is accurate," Gautreau said.
At WTVT-Ch. 13, the station bolsters original stories from health reporter Dr. Joette Giovinco with pieces developed by other Fox affiliates across the country, retracking the stories with Giovinco's voice. From January to March, about 23 percent of her stories were provided by other stations, according to records provided by WTVT.
"We hired a medical doctor because we wanted a medical doctor to originate stories," said WTVT general manager Bob Linger, who noted sharing of stories among network affiliates is not uncommon. "Dr. Jo, as our medical reporter, is the face of our medical news . . . (and) at the end of the day, our job is to educate people about medical issues of importance. And I think we're doing our job."
Terry Heaton, a consultant who also has served as news director at six TV stations, said such services first emerged in the 1980s as a way for outlets to increase their reporting reach.
"It's just another way the industry of TV news changed from covering news to managing audience flow," said Heaton, author of a book on coping with the seismic changes in modern news, Reinventing Local Media. "Highly promotional health-related stories are a big part of that. You can cling to pure journalism and pure journalism ethics, but it's hard to stick with that when (economically) the ship is going down."
Eric Deggans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.