Prescription-Strength Spin at WCBS-2

Top-market station turns a corporate news release into an unbalanced medical feature

Submitted by Daniel Price on
Clients: Leiner Health Products
Release Date: February 2006
Aired By: 2 stations
Disclosed By: No stations

On February 22, 2006, WCBS-2 in New York City aired an 84-second health feature on glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate, two over-the-counter nutritional supplements that, according to anchor Jim Rosenfield, "deliver a one-two punch to ease the pain" of people suffering from moderate to severe knee osteoarthritis.

In addition to citing a newly-published report in the New England Journal of Medicine, the WCBS segment included positive testimony from Jeff Van Nostrand, an osteoarthritis patient who was helped by glucosamine/chondroitin; Pamela Peeke, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine; and Dr. Thomas Vangsness, a professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Southern California.

What WCBS didn't tell its viewers is that every shot, fact and soundbite in their story was taken directly from a video news release (VNR) created by MultiVu and funded by Leiner Health Products, a company that markets a combination glucosamine/chondroitin supplement.

Producers at WCBS edited the original VNR for content and length, added station-branded text overlays and replaced the MultiVu publicist's narration with the voice of an unidentified station reporter. Disturbingly, the WCBS story wasn't supplemented by any additional footage or research. Had anyone at the newsroom even glanced at the abstract of the New England Journal of Medicine report, they would have seen the good news about the supplements tempered by the following conclusion:

Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate alone or in combination did not reduce pain effectively in the overall group of patients with osteoarthritis of the knee.

Unlike WCBS, the New York Times took the report's findings as bad news for chondroitin and glucosamine. Their February 23 article from science reporter Gina Kolata was titled "Supplements Fail to Stop Arthritis Pain, Study Says" (registration required).

Whatever the truth may be about the effectiveness of these two supplements, the viewers of America's third most-watched local newscast were tricked into believing they were seeing an independently-researched health report that examined all sides of the issue—not just the corporate side.

On the same day as the WCBS report, the Leiner Health Products VNR was also aired by WNEP-16, the ABC affiliate in northeastern Pennsylvania. Like WCBS, the station ran an edited version of the VNR with a reporter re-voice. And like WCBS, nobody at the network disclosed MultiVu or Leiner as the true source of the story.

The Center for Media and Democracy has tracked two additional VNRs promoting chondroitin sulfate. Both VNRs were created by D S Simon Productions on behalf of Bioibérica, an international supplier of the chondroitin supplement. Although the first VNR was aired uncritically by a Syracuse ABC station, the second VNR was actually used in a negative context by newscasts in Philadelphia and Dallas.

Update: In response to this report, WNEP-13 has issued an apology and explanation for their unattributed use of the Leiner Health Products VNR.

View the original VNR, as well as the WCBS news feature, below.

Original Leiner VNR WCBS-2 5PM newscast
Created by MultiVu, Inc. March 22, 2006
Voiced by publicist Re-voiced by station reporter