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NBC5's Children's Health Check: Is it also checkbook journalism?

Sponsoring newscasts is one of television's oldest living professions. But is NBC5 prostituting itself by taking money for something that looks like news but is pre-bought as part of a contract with a Dallas hospital?

We're talking about the station's weekly "Children's Health Check," which airs on Wednesdays within the closing 6 a.m. hour of NBC5's early morning newscast. NBC5 reporter Melissa Newton is the latest to introduce the segments, which news director Susan Tully says have been airing for well over a year under a paid sponsorship arrangement with Children's Medical Center.

How much money is changing hands? Tully wouldn't comment, but sources close to the situation say that between $250,000 and $300,000 is paid annually to NBC5 under a deal brokered by The Richards Group, a prominent Dallas advertising agency. Several sources also say that WFAA8 recently turned down an opportunity to be the "Children's Health Check" station in place of NBC5. Another D-FW station, says Tully, "went after the sponsorship hard, and we got it again."

WFAA8 president and general manager Mike Devlin declined to "confirm or deny whether we were approached."

"But our policy is you cannot buy news content at WFAA," he said.

In return for the payments to NBC5, doctors from Children's Medical Center are interviewed on matters ranging from chicken pox to ear infections to easier holiday dinners for diabetic children. The exposure is considered a significant bonus in a fierce competition for patients among Children's Medical Center, Medical City and Cook's Children, which sometimes sponsors NBC5's early morning "Gridlock Busters" traffic reports.

"This is a sponsorship. They don't control editorial content," Tully said of Children's Medical Center in a recent telephone interview. "They give us resources and story ideas, but we decide what we're going to cover, how we're going to cover it."

In a subsequent email to unclebarky.com, Tully emphasized that "CMC helps us quickly find the right pediatrician to talk about the topic. If CMC can't help us find an expert, we can look anywhere for that person. From the newsroom perspective, we have access to great resources through CMC, and they typically find who we are looking for . . . Our newsroom has total control over the segments, and we see them as having news value to parents watching at 6:30 a.m. who are about to send their children off to school for the day."

Research of previous "Children's Health Check" segments on NBC5's Web site found no instance in which a Children's Medical Center doctor wasn't the designated expert. In the 12 segments posted, eight different Children's Medical Center doctors were interviewed. Several made more than one appearance, led by Dr. John McClay's three.

NBC5's Newton, whom Tully says is a freelancer, is nonetheless listed and pictured as a full-fledged "reporter for NBC5" on the station's Web site. She introduces the paid segments while standing next to a "Children's Health Check" logo in NBC5's studios. Newton in turn is first introduced from the anchor desk by the early morning program's two principal news readers, Deborah Ferguson and Brendan Higgins. In commercial breaks before or sometimes after the segments, viewers are told that they're "sponsored by Children's Medical Center."

WFAA8 isn't entirely pristine in this. Its locally produced Good Morning Texas variety program, which doesn't fall under the station's news umbrella, invariably has guests whose companies pay for their 5-minute mini-infomercials with the show's hosts, Brenda Teele, Gary Cogill and Amy Vanderoef.

On a recent GMT, a printed disclaimer near the end of the show said that "promotional considerations" were paid for by Hawk Electronics, IBB Design Group Furniture Showroom and Our Children's House at Baylor. In the Hawk segment, guest Jeff Gerred hawked cell phones during a sit-down with Teele.

"The news department has no involvement in it," WFAA8's Devlin said of GMT. "And any of those paid segments are clearly labeled as such. We have a longstanding policy that advertisers and sponsors cannot buy news content, and that's the distinction."

WFAA8 also has used Dr. David Winter in "Health Source" segments during daytime newscasts. But Winter does his own independent standups after being introduced by one of the station's anchors or medical reporter Janet St. James. A search of the station's Web site found just one spot, and a dated one at that. Dr. Winter talked about "Lip Plumpers" on March 22nd of last year after St. James set up the segment.

"We pay fees to Dr. Winter for transmission costs," Devlin said in an email when asked about his arrangement with WFAA8. "He is used sparingly. There is no advertising relationship between us and Baylor. They don't pay us any money to run him and in fact we don't promise to run him on a regular basis."

It's an "apples and oranges comparison" in relation to NBC5's "Children's Health Check" segments, Devlin said.

One news director, Glen Mabie of WEAU-TV in Eau Claire, WI, resigned early this year after his station formed what a Columbia Journalism Review article called "an exclusive coverage deal with a local hospital, which he says would have compromised the station's independence and integrity."

NBC5's Tully insists that's not the case at her station.

"Nothing prevents us from going to Cook Children's or Medical City," she said of any other reporting the station might do. But within the confines of the "Children's Health Check" segments, "we typically do" use Children's Medical Center doctors, Tully conceded.

"There's nothing written that you can't use anybody else. But it's just a partnership that makes sense to us. They give us access to great pediatricians quickly. It's a win-win for us."

The money isn't bad either.