- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 12, 2005

When is a TV commercial an advertisement? When is it a public service announcement?

These days, the Washington area’s CBS affiliate, WUSA-TV (Channel 9), is putting both questions to the test.

In a series of 30-second spots airing on WUSA this month, veteran reporter Peggy Fox promotes “Lighten Up, Washington,” an anti-obesity campaign organized by the station and the new Inova Heart and Vascular Institute in Falls Church.

In one segment, Ms. Fox talks about the benefits of eating smaller meals.

The spot features shots of the Inova Heart and Vascular Institute’s building and the Inova and WUSA logos. It ends with Ms. Fox telling viewers to call Inova or to visit WUSA’s Web site for more information.

It looks like another innocuous public service announcement, the kind TV stations have done for decades.

But Inova purchased the airtime for the spots, said Kathleen Thomas, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit health care group.

“They are ads. We paid for them. But it’s clear they are promoting ‘Lighten Up, Washington,’” and not Inova itself, she said.

Ms. Fox — who reports on Northern Virginia for WUSA — also hosts a half-hour DVD program that Inova distributes through its Web site. The program features information on heart disease, but it also touts the new Inova Heart and Vascular Institute.

The ads and the DVD may provide useful information, but is it proper for TV reporters to appear in programming paid for by an advertiser?

“It is a public service to help raise awareness about heart disease. It’s the Number One killer of women. We’re just trying to get the word out,” Ms. Fox said.

Inova did not pay her for her appearances, she said.

Randal Stanley, WUSA’s news director, has not seen the DVD, but he said Ms. Fox’s role in it should not be seen as an endorsement of Inova by Ms. Fox or WUSA. “We don’t do endorsements,” he said.

Darryll J. Green, WUSA’s general manager, declined comment.

On the DVD, Ms. Fox explains the symptoms of heart disease and ways to reduce it.

The show includes enthusiastic endorsements of Inova from patients. One woman says the care she received was “wonderful.” Another calls her experience at Inova Fairfax Hospital “just amazing.”

Also on the DVD, an Inova executive calls the heart institute “one of the advances for tomorrow that will benefit all people in Northern Virginia.”

Inova plans to purchase time on WUSA to air between four and six commercials this year, Ms. Thomas said.

Ms. Fox is expected to appear in “some” of them, she said.

It’s not unusual for TV stations to form partnerships with other organizations to promote civic projects. The Freddie Mac Foundation is one of the sponsors of “Wednesday’s Child,” a weekly adoption segment on WRC-TV (Channel 4), the local NBC station.

But these kinds of deals tend to raise ethical concerns, said Bob Steele, senior ethics professor at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“Even if the cause is noble, this is not the role journalists should be playing. It’s unwise and unprofessional. The station shouldn’t be putting the reporter in that position, and it shouldn’t be compromising its integrity and independence,” he said.

Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send e-mail to cbaker@washingtontimes.com.

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