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Prominent TV news doctor puts own name on pre-fab reports

San Francisco station also ran press releases under his byline on Web

VIDEO: See a side-by-side comparison of a March 2 story voiced by Dr. Dean Edell and the near-original version by Ivanhoe Broadcast News.
Click here for a lower-resolution Flash video version.
For another example, see KGO-TV's March 15 story on a device to stop atrial fibrillation (top photo), voiced by Dr. Edell, and the original by Ivanhoe dated December 2005.

Dean Edell, the syndicated multimedia medical reporter who calls himself "America's Doctor," has built a thriving business dispensing news and advice about everything from cancer treatments to erectile dysfunction.

What followers of his "Medical Journal" on KGO Channel 7 may not realize is that the reporting he takes credit for on the air often is not his own.

Many of his TV stories, along with transcripts under his byline on the KGO Web site, were taken nearly verbatim from a low-profile news service in Florida that mails out prepackaged video reports to more than 100 TV stations across the country.

The company, Ivanhoe Broadcast News, allows local reporters to put their names on stories they didn't report, film or write -- without mentioning Ivanhoe. Stations also are permitted to omit geographical information, giving viewers the false impression that the stories were locally produced and the patients and doctors quoted in the stories could be their neighbors.

Dr. Edell's byline also has appeared at the top of press releases posted on the KGO Web site and another health news site with which Dr. Edell has been affiliated. While KGO's management said the misleading credit on its site was a mistake that would be corrected, the station maintains there is nothing wrong with obscuring the true sources of his on-air reports.

There was no shortage of criticism of that approach.

"That's plagiarism," said Paul Little, president of the National Association of Medical Communicators. "I think the airing of any piece of video, when the viewer is not aware of the true source of the video, is unethical."

Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit training center for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla., agreed. "Even if you do have the writer's permission, it's plagiarism," she said. "The problem is it's a deception to the reader, saying that you've written this piece."

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "plagiarize" means "To take and use as one's own the thoughts, writings or inventions of another."

The Radio-Television News Directors Association's Code of Ethics admonishes electronic journalists to "clearly disclose the origin of information and label all material provided by outsiders." The Society of Professional Journalists' code states it even more plainly: "Never plagiarize."

But Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington, D.C., said that word implies unauthorized copying, or theft: "Plagiarism and borrowing of material is not like fabrication -- it's a gray line, not a black-and-white line."

Dr. Edell said he was less concerned about attribution than accuracy. He said Ivanhoe has an excellent reputation inside the business, and he, an M.D., vets each story on its scientific merits.

Following the script

Not in dispute, however, is the extent of the copying. A story about heart surgery that ran March 2 on KGO, the ABC station in San Francisco, began with anchor Cheryl Jennings saying "ABC7's Dr. Dean Edell reports on an innovative new approach." As the included video clip shows, it was not Dr. Edell's reporting at all. Nor, it turns out, was it all that new.

The story, describing a ring surgically implanted into the heart to improve blood flow, was filmed at least partly in Michigan by videographers working for Ivanhoe six months before it was aired in San Francisco, said Kara Gavin, a spokeswoman for the University of Michigan Health System. A nearly identical version ran in early January on News14 in Raleigh, N.C., with a narration by Ivanhoe's announcer Jennifer Matthews. That clip can be found on that station's Web site.

Something you hear in the trade is that TV news is just entertainment based on the news.

-- Dr. Dean Edell

In addition to the prepackaged video stories, KGO's Web site has featured press releases from several American medical centers under the words, "By Dr. Dean Edell." When Grade the News inquired about the misleading byline, KGO said it would no longer appear on those pages. News Director Kevin Keehsan wrote in an e-mail that the byline was a formatting error on the station's computer, which had automatically added Dr. Edell's name to everything posted on his section of the site.

The lack of attribution in video, however, was deliberate. Mr. Keeshan indicated that he had no intention of identifying the true authors of TV stories narrated by Dr. Edell on KGO.

"We've never attributed any of Dean's reports to his producers, which includes Ivanhoe Broadcast Services," Mr. Keeshan wrote. "We will not do so in the future."

Cheaper than original stories

In telephone and e-mail interviews Dr. Edell acknowledged that in recent years he has increasingly relied on prepared stories from Ivanhoe. He said that to sustain the level of productivity of about one story per day his producer at KGO, Penelope Dunham, sometimes sends him stories to announce that come almost entirely from the service. On some stories she will film locally and write original material, but on others will take pre-written scripts and perhaps "flip-flop paragraphs," Dr. Edell said.

Then Dr. Edell edits them, he said, sometimes adding a personal touch by filming brief "stand-up" narrations in a pharmacy. Often, he said, he injects a dose of "doctorly advice" based on his reading of medical research reports. He said he typically drives into San Francisco to record between five and 10 "Medical Journal" segments in a single day.

"We'll do them pretty much as-is, but I don't think they come with stand-ups, so we always have to do that part of it," he said.

Dr. Edell said he uses the pre-fab reports because KGO has slashed his support staff to save money. In the 1990s, when his medical segments were syndicated nationally, he had two producers. He also said he had a full-time tape editor and cameraman. (Mr. Keeshan said only two people worked for Dr. Edell full time.) Now only Ms. Dunham works just for him, he said. "The whole system is pretty much stretched," Dr. Edell said. "It's so expensive to send out crews to do something that the supplier of this B-roll provides us."

But he did express surprise when informed that the finished stories contained no on-screen titles crediting Ivanhoe. He said he hadn't noticed because he doesn't watch his own finished pieces when they air on Channel 7.

Local stations and national news networks should attribute the material that they put on the air. The viewer deserves to know who or what organization stands behind it.

-- Terence Smith,
Former "News Hour" media reporter

Ms. Dunham asked that she be contacted later when Grade the News reached her. Further attempts were foreclosed by KGO News Director Keeshan, who responded that "All communication regarding this issue is being handled by me."

A day after being asked about the attribution of the reports, Dr. Edell wrote back that he had "launched an attempted change" at the station and that he had "no problem crediting Ivanhoe," adding that he would defer to the station to make that call.

But Mr. Keeshan said the standards for attribution in television are different from those in print. He compared Dr. Edell's use of pre-packaged stories to other KGO reporters' practice of incorporating video and interviews from a variety of outside agencies into their own reporting without naming those providers.

"When we take information from the Associated Press, and we rewrite it with video from ABC, and tag it with information that our assignment desk got, who wrote that story?" Mr. Keeshan asked. "That's how our world works."

Does plagiarism apply to TV?

Attribution certainly matters in newspapers and magazines. Several prominent publications have been rocked by scandal recently after reporters and columnists borrowed phrases from other journalists. In each case, the appropriation of a few consecutive words ended the offender's career.

But Dr. Edell said that because broadcast reporters and anchors routinely rip and read stories from newswires without attribution, "I think you will have a very complex time defining plagiarism in TV news."

"Something you hear in the trade is that TV news is just entertainment based on the news," Dr. Edell said, adding that for authoritative news he relies on newspapers. "Authorship in our business? Forget about it. Anything an anchor tells you, everything is coming from secondary sources."

Some television journalists, though, say the rules for print and broadcast are the same.

Terence Smith, who spent 13 years as a correspondent for CBS News and eight years covering the national media business for the News Hour on PBS, said television should not be held to a looser standard. He said either he or his staff writes all the material he narrates on camera, and he attributes any footage that originates outside his newsroom. But some local news stations, he said, think they can play by different rules.

"It seems deceptive to me if the person whose name goes on it, in this case Dr. Edell, hasn't researched it and hasn't written it, and in fact is just voicing material that others have produced," Mr. Smith said. "I think that local stations and national news networks should attribute the material that they put on the air. The viewer deserves to know who or what organization stands behind it."

Re-voicing video you didn't shoot or even assign is "lazy reporting," said John Fowler, health and science editor at KTVU Channel 2 in Oakland.

In his 20 years of medical journalism, he said, "I can't recall when I ever have relied exclusively on someone else's reporting. That's anathema to me. Personally, I take a great deal of pride and put effort into getting the story myself."

Sometimes that's not possible. So when he gets video from the outside he attributes it. One recent story, about Stanford University's attempts to build a bionic eye, went so far as to include the disclaimer in one six-second clip: "Univ. of Southern Calif. Video."

(KTVU isn't perfect either. The station has also run unattributed health press releases -- though it didn't go so far as to credit any KTVU staff.)

Finding copied stories online

Dr. Edell's use of canned reporting came to light in the course of examining Grade the News' yearlong sample of Bay Area news media. In 2005, Dr. Edell narrated a story about a new treatment for clearing clogged arteries in the heart. It appeared on KGO's Web site under his nameplate: "Dr. Dean Edell Reports."

A virtually identical transcript appeared on the Web site of WCHS Channel 8 in Charleston, W.V., under the photo of that station's medical reporter, Deborah Linz.

The video also ran on News14 in North Carolina, narrated by Ivanhoe's Ms. Matthews.

The press releases under Dr. Edell's name that KGO has promised to stop running on its Web site were written by self-interested medical centers, not independent journalists. One such release from the Cleveland Clinic, posted to the KGO Web site Feb. 26, compared the value to athletes of different types of sugar supplements. Dr. Edell said in an interview that he encouraged the station to post press releases, but never authorized it to remove or change the attribution.

Other Web sites appear to have no problem clearly separating public relations from journalism. A writer at WebMD.com used the same press release to write her own story -- and cited as sources both the press release and the original study at the bottom of the page.

Change at health-advice site

Dr. Edell's name and image also appear on HealthCentral.com, whose motto is "Trusted, Reliable and Up To Date Health Information." Under the heading, "Dr. Dean Edell: Insight from America's Doctor," several "articles" also were, in fact, press releases from medical research centers.

On HealthCentral, one press release came from the State University of New York at Buffalo touting the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder without drugs. The author of the press release said he was surprised to see Dr. Edell's name on his handiwork.

"I think probably it is somewhat misleading to the average consumer," said the university's public-relations writer, John DellaContrada. "If they're looking to Dr. Dean Edell for advice, it should be something that comes from his research or background or knowledge rather than something prepared by a PR professional based on an hour interview with a researcher at the university where I work. I'm certainly not a doctor."

Dr. Edell said that he used to be a partner in HealthCentral but lost his stake in the company or any influence over what goes out under his name when the company declared bankruptcy in the dot-com bust. He said HealthCentral's new owners had put postings under his name without his approval and he was powerless to stop them, even though he still collaborates on hosting quarterly medical videos for the company. (Those videos do attribute the reporting to Ivanhoe onscreen.)

"I have no control over it," he said. "So there forever is, A., misinformation that's slipped through the cracks and B., outdated information. I wake up at night and wonder what happens if people go to that site and get bad information. I'm not even protected legally."

But when asked about the misattributed press releases, Chris Schroeder, CEO of the HealthCentral Network, said no one had ever brought them to his attention. He took the pages off the site within a day.

In an e-mail, Mr. Schroeder wrote apologetically of press releases that online readers "must ALWAYS know where they come from. We're committed to not only make sure these sites have complete veracity, but complete clarity."

'The allure of our service'

Not all health-news businesses insist on such transparency, however.

Ivanhoe is one of several low-profile services that sell canned news reports to TV stations without requiring any acknowledgement, instead enabling them to have their own reporters re-record the narration to make it seem as if the stories were locally produced. In 2003, Grade the News reported that KNTV Channel 11, the NBC station in San Jose, used prepackaged "investigative" reports from an Atlanta-based video service called NewsProNet.

NewsProNet's marketing materials encouraged local reporters to take all the credit. That can come back to bite the stations, however, if the reports convey misleading information. One NewsProNet piece made several exaggerated claims, such as the statement that an upstart credit-rating company was "secret." The company actually had both a Web site and toll-free numbers.

Like NewsProNet, Ivanhoe allows local stations to omit the locations of sources or any mention of Ivanhoe.

"We don't require them to attribute to us," said Julie Marks, a field producer with Ivanhoe. "That's part of the allure of our service. We sell them stories and they can use them as if they originated the reports themselves."

Ivanhoe's president and publisher, Marjorie Bekaert Thomas, said she was one of the few survivors in a business that used to support more than a dozen competitors. Twenty-five years after she started, Ivanhoe has a staff of 15 at its headquarters near Orlando and 50 freelance reporters and videographers around the country. None of them are doctors, she said.

Ms. Thomas said it is up to each station to do with the material what it will. She said the company doesn't insist on enforcing the copyright to the material when it's licensed to a station exclusively in one market.

"I think the appeal is that they get to expand what they offer viewers in terms of health-care information," she said. "I don't think there's any misrepresentation involved at all.

"Don't you know that all those radio and TV reporters do nothing but read newspaper stories on the air? For whatever reason it's not something that bothers them."

One doctor's empire of trust

Dr. Edell, an opthamologist who earned his M.D. from Cornell in 1967, hasn't practiced medicine since shortly thereafter. For decades he has built a personal business out of popularizing medical information through mass media.

He hosts a daily call-in advice show that now can be heard on 250 radio stations across the country. Talkers Magazine rates Dean Edell as the most-listened-to radio doctor in the country. He has spun off his radio commentary into two popular medical advice books and, at one point, published a health newsletter under his name.

He has reported on medicine for KGO-TV for more than two decades, and for a time syndicated his own medical segments to television stations across the country. In the early 1990s he also briefly hosted a medical TV talk show called "Dr. Dean" on NBC. He still works with HealthCentral's TV unit. There is even a line of eyewear named after him.

But with regard to KGO, Dr. Edell portrayed himself as an outside consultant who no longer even accompanies videographers on shoots the station does itself, as he did in the past.

Campaigned against video PR

Dr. Edell is quick to differentiate his techniques from what he sees as widespread copying by other medical reporters.

In his writing and in news stories on television, Dr. Edell has condemned the unattributed use of video news releases -- ready-to-run stories produced by companies or government agencies looking for publicity.

In an opinion piece he wrote for the Knight Ridder news service in 1997, "Beware the Television Report of 'Important Medical Breakthrough,'" Dr. Edell scolded health journalists "faced with shrinking budgets and staffs, pressure to produce more segments, and shorter deadlines" who succumb to self-interested parties pushing "pre-packaged video tape complete with ready-made scripts."

He expressed disgust at his discovery that in others' medical stories, "Every word of the news reports was identical."

In an interview, Dr. Edell explained that his objection to video news releases is not the copying per se but the willingness of reporters to accept whatever is handed to them, regardless of whether it comes from a trustworthy source. Ivanhoe is trustworthy and has no conflicts of interest, he said, and his medical degree leaves him in a better position to sift through health claims.

"My concern about this whole area is these types of products are supplied to stations across the country that don't have a medical doctor looking over them," Dr. Edell said.

Mr. Keeshan, the KGO news director, agreed that what's important is that Dr. Edell is distributing sound health advice and doesn't let questionable reports get past his desk.

"Dr. Dean Edell is a standard of medical reporting," Mr. Keeshan said. "He is a communicator. He provides our viewers with information, whether it is a story Penelope Dunham produced 100% or whether Ivanhoe wrote and we re-tracked. He reads more medical studies than any other doctor in America. He is well informed. Our viewers go to him because they expect a certain level of accuracy and reliability."

But Dr. Edell expressed concern about standards of attribution, and said he would consider changing the way he cites his sources.

"The most upsetting part of all this is that I'm not sure the audience cares," he said. "The higher the bar the audience sets for us, the higher the bar will be."

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.


A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

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