The most recent episode of Last Week Tonight featured a pretty damning segment about sponsored content in local news programs. John Oliver called out a couple of Utah TV news stations in particular, but ABC4 got the brunt of it. For many years, I was a news producer and journalist at that station. And I’ve spent the last few days thinking about how it got so bad.
Here’s the clip. It’s a good watch. Venus Veil–priceless.
First off, every point of criticism Oliver levels against sponsored content in news is spot on. It compromises the credibility of the news station by attempting to capitalize on said credibility, it’s often used to spread insidious medical misinformation (unchecked and unvetted, as we saw) and, oftentimes, the audience honestly cannot tell the difference between a regular news guest and one who has paid (sometimes embarrassingly little) to be there.
In the discourse that has followed the clip, many stations have pointed out that they only air sponsored content in their lifestyle shows. You’ll usually recognize a lifestyle show by its mid-morning/early afternoon time slot and the number of women chatting around one half of a table. But the line between lifestyle and news are often blurred. Some stations, for instance, air sponsored content in the midday and afternoon news programs. It’s not the evening news, so, yeah, there might be a little more lifestyle-adjacent content, but they’re still billed as news. You can’t have it both ways, guys.
The John Oliver segment should be a wake-up call for any news station that participates in this kind of sponsored programming. But, for most stations–even some of the ones called out in the clip–I doubt anything will change, not in any substantial way.
Why? It boils down to money, power and time. But really, just the money. A news station is still a business. The old-school advertising methods (you know, when commercials only appeared in commercial breaks) don’t stretch as far as they used to. Regardless, the media corporations that own most U.S. TV news stations expect those stations to be profitable. Whatever it takes. That means finding more revenue streams, including robbing more and more air time away from news to devote to sponsored content. And airing that content is nonnegotiable.
I feel for TV news writers, reporters and journalists who are in the crosshairs right now. Every year, TV news stations are required to forsake integrity for money, and the people who are just there to give you the news lose more control over what airs. With cost-cutting measures, in many markets, you have just a handful of people to produce all of the hours of news content that airs in a day. That is a heavy lift, one that doesn’t allow for the luxury of time for thoughtfulness or vetting sponsored segments for that matter (not that it would make a difference if it did).
To make it clear, news people, actual news people, don’t book those sponsored segments. They’re often made to produce them–choking down their bile as four, six, ten minutes of their newscast are devoted to hocking an unapproved stem cell treatment or dubious cures for your ED–but, given the choice, they would likely go entirely without. (I once watched a chiropractor, who had paid to appear to talk about his favorite snake oil or whatever, completely derail his own segment to raise the alarm about the “COVID hoax” in the middle of the pandemic, in the face of millions of deaths. But hey, he paid for it, so it was his time to use how he liked.)
The choice instead lies in the hands of another group of people at a TV station: the sales department. The sales reps line up the clients, name the price, and pick the time slot. They are not journalists or news experts of any kind. They are sales people. Their job is to sell air time. Air time in the break or in the show, what difference does it make to them? If anyone out there is willing to pay for a spot on the air, who are they to say no, no matter the product or associated claims? And, once a spot is sold, it is going to air. That’s it. As I said, nonnegotiable.
And, on some level, they’re necessary. The station needs to make money to make the news. So, if anything is going to change, that change has to happen on a systemic level. We need to admit, as a country, that local news is important. It is still how many people keep informed about what’s happening in their community, so they can make educated decisions. Local news is critically important disseminating information in the event of a natural disaster or any threat public safety. So why don’t we treat it that way?
Why do we let a handful of companies gobble up a majority of local news stations, often stripping them down and reorganizing them in an attempt to milk out every dollar they can until the well runs dry? Why doesn’t this country protect and invest in local news like any other fundamental part of its infrastructure? (just kidding, I know we’re terrible about investing in that, too.) But we should look at the health of local news the same way we look at the condition of roads, schools, drinking water, internet access and power grids. A local news failure is a threat to public health, safety and security.
Yes. A lot of sponsored content is a travesty. A pox on the face of local journalism. But if we want to see it gone, we have to change the underlying conditions that make it necessary. If we take anything from the Last Week Tonight clip it should be that local news is sick, and, instead of seeking treatment from an actual medical expert, it’s just going to try this new tea cleanse it saw on a sponsored news segment.