Undisclosed Fake News Includes Hidden Interests

Three Stations Air a Medical VNR, No Questions Asked

Submitted by Diane Farsetta on
Clients: American College of Physicians
Release Date: October 2006
Aired By: 3 stations
Disclosed By: No stations

"God, what is it? What do you want from me? What is this?"

The plaintive quote comes from Cynthia Greenspan, who suffers from irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS. She's featured in a video news release (VNR) produced for the American College of Physicians by the broadcast PR firm D S Simon Productions. However, viewers could ask the same three questions of television stations that secretly include VNRs in their newscasts.

The VNR describes a study published in the October 17, 2006, issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, the American College of Physicians' main publication. In the pre-packaged VNR and additional soundbites, Greenspan describes her relief after trying a new IBS treatment, the antibiotic rifaximin. Dr. Mark Pimentel, the lead author of the rifaximin / IBS study, is also featured in the VNR.

However, neither the VNR nor the accompanying information from D S Simon notes the multiple financial interests at play. According to the Annals' own website, the rifaximin / IBS study was funded by Salix Pharmaceuticals, which sells rifaximin (under the brand name Xifaxan) for traveler's diarrhea. Dr. Pimentel is also a paid consultant for Salix, among other pharmaceutical companies.

Moreover, the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where Pimentel works, "has a licensing agreement with Salix Pharmaceuticals" and "has a patent on the use of rifaximin to treat IBS," according to the Annals and the Los Angeles Times (Science File, October 21, 2006), respectively. Lastly, the Annals website notes that the rifaximin / IBS study was limited, in that it had a "modest sample size and short duration," and that "most patients were from 1 center."

These financial ties and caveats do not mean that the rifaximin / IBS study is inaccurate, but they certainly warrant mention in any news account. Unfortunately, instead of an independently-produced and researched report, the news audiences of three TV stations saw undisclosed VNR footage.

On October 16, WTNZ-43 (Knoxville, TN) aired an edited and re-voiced version of the VNR. Pimentel was shown, saying that "we must be treating some mechanism or cause of IBS through this product." Although all video and information presented in the WTNZ-43 segment came directly from the VNR, no disclosure was provided to viewers. When asked about the segment, WTNZ-43's Jamie Foster said, "We do not use VNRs."

The same day, WFLA-8 (Tampa / St. Petersburg, FL) also aired an edited and re-voiced version of the VNR. At least the WFLA-8 anchor stated at the conclusion of the brief segment [Quicktime, 0.8 MB], "Researchers say a longer, larger study is now needed." Still, no disclosure was given, even though every second of video came from the VNR.

On October 17, WSBT-22 (South Bend / Elkhart, IN) aired a segment [Quicktime, 1.0 MB] that combined VNR footage with what appears to be promotional video of Xifaxan, the brand-name version of rifaximin. The segment did include a contrary soundbite from Dr. Charles Gerson of New York City's Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Dr. Gerson cautioned, "Patients should understand that none of those three symptoms [of IBS, being abdominal pain, constipation and diarrhea] improved in this report, in taking the antibiotic." Yet, WSBT-22 did not disclose the source of the sponsored video.

That broadcasts of this VNR were zero for three on disclosure is noteworthy. Like most D S Simon VNRs produced following the April 2006 "Fake TV News" report, the original VNR ended with on-screen written and verbal notifications of the client behind it—in this case, the American College of Physicians, which also funded another VNR described in this study.

Original Amer. Coll. of Physicians VNR WTNZ-43 10PM newscast
Created by D S Simon Productions October 16, 2006
Voiced by publicist Re-voiced by station anchor