Gary Hill, ethics committee chair, (651) 642-4437 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Jerry Dunklee, ethics committee member, (203) 392-5801 or email@example.com
Gordon D. “Mac” McKerral, president, (813) 679-5662 or firstname.lastname@example.org
INDIANAPOLIS—Recent press reports have outlined practices that present a clear violation of the basic tenets of ethical journalism and threaten the independence of the press guaranteed by the Constitution. Some broadcast stations have begun to ask business people and others in the community to pay for a chance to be interviewed on the air.
These “sponsored” segments sometimes appear in news shows and are not clearly labeled as paid advertising. In other instances, the content inhabits an ambiguous gray zone between news, entertainment and advertising, with elements of each. Sometimes anchors and other news personnel have appeared in promotions for advertisers; other times, the use of the same stage set or the nature of adjacent content adds to the viewer’s confusion. Some radio stations are offering groups an opportunity to purchase an interview in programming that appears to the listener to be a normal talk show.
Such troublesome hybrids are not uniquely a problem of radio and television. Some newspapers offer advertisers deals in which stories about them will appear in special editions that are easily confused with staff-generated news features.
In both print and broadcast media, some journalists have been required by their management to report, write, photograph or appear in such purchased “news” stories.
These practices are a disservice to the public, eroding the trust the public must have to find the work of the press credible. That is why the SPJ Code of Ethics urges responsible journalists to “Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.”
Such phony “news” stories not only offend the public trust, they also undermine the credibility of the news operation for advertisers. Legitimate advertisers pay to be associated with a newspaper, magazine or news show because their messages will appear in a trustworthy place. Permitting news to be bought destroys the very reason good advertisers want to advertise in the press in the first place.
Some of the recent offenses have taken place in broadcast programs that fall somewhere between news and entertainment. It is the duty of the ethical broadcaster and print journalist to assure that there can be no confusion in the public’s mind which content is advertising and which is news or opinion or entertainment. Our ethical obligation is to assist the reader, listener and viewer in making such distinctions, not to confuse or “trick” them. The burden of proof for ambiguous content should be on the provider’s end, not the consumer’s.
The public must know, instantly and unambiguously, whether content is a real, staff-originated news story or advertising. Advertising must be labeled clearly, not with “pro forma” introductions that easily escape the attention. Above all, news must not be tainted by sources paying to be quoted or interviewed. Such practices are simply wrong; they erode the credibility of every conscientious journalist. The SPJ Code of Ethics addresses this issue as well. It urges journalists to: “Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.”
We note that Federal Communications Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein has called for a probe into these “payola” practices in broadcasting. U.S. Sen. John Mc Cain, R-Ariz., has asked for an investigation. We understand the frustration that leads to such appeals for government action, but we are as wary of government encroaching on the realm of news programming as we are of advertisers surreptitiously dictating such coverage. However, unless editors, producers and managers in journalistic or quasi-journalistic roles clean their own houses, there is a real threat that government will move in to enforce “pro-consumer” standards that will inevitably, though unconstitutionally, stray into the realm of editorial content.
We call on all journalism companies and their parent organizations to make every possible effort to separate news and advertising and to provide enough clear labeling of purchased content that no reader, viewer or listener could ever be in doubt about the nature of that content.
The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. SPJ is dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, and based in Indianapolis, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed public, works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists, and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.