Paying for news stories – is it ever ethical?

There’s no doubt about it; the journalism industry has to reinvent itself to remain viable in a world where the old model of advertising-supported content is unlikely to work. But where should news organizations draw the line?

In Oklahoma, stations KOTV and KWTV are both running stories within their newscasts about a state-sponsored insurance program and getting paid by the state to do it.  According to the Tulsa Word, the stations’ parent company, Griffin Communications, will be paid $3.1 million for marketing “Insure Oklahoma.” 

Griffin’s CEO says the company is not “selling the news,”  and Ron Harig, KOTV news director, says that when the stories are aired, “a disclaimer is read following the segment to inform people that Griffin is the sponsor.”

But take a look at some of the actual stories.   Do you think they are doing enough to inform viewers that this is paid content?  For example, check out the anchor intro for one piece:

Oklahoma small business owners love what they’re hearing about Insure Oklahoma when it comes to providing health insurance.  Spokesperson Angela Buckelew tells us this morning two dreams will now come true.

That hardly sounds like objective news reporting – and what exactly is Angela Buckelew a spokesperson for?  The stories themselves air without any visual disclaimer on any of the video, supers, etc., which seems to go against RTNDA guidelines for what is essentially a video news release.  In addition, the reporter on the stories used to work for one of the stations airing the segments, so she most likely looks like part of the news team for many viewers.

But, is there a way these stories could air within the newscast without raising ethical concerns?  What if the content was aired between commercial breaks, with no on-air introduction by the news anchors?  Are there other options?

It’s clear that news organizations have to find other ways to make money – and that’s going to mean that journalists will need to have more discussions than ever before about what constitutes the ethical dissemination of information.  I just don’t think this qualifies.

The vanishing ombudsman

Add one more category to the list of endangered journalism jobs.  In his introductory column, the Washington Post’s new ombudsman, Andy Alexander, says many of his fellow reader representatives have been casualties of budget cuts. That’s a shame, because it seems to me that the role of ombudsman is critically important to the survival of mainstream media.

What’s an ombudsman, you ask? The world “ombudsman” is of Scandinavian origin and applies to anyone who handles complaints and tries to find mutually satisfactory solutions.The first one was appointed in 1809 in Sweden to handle citizens’ complaints about the government, according to the Organization of News Ombudsmen, known by the best acronym ever: ONO.

Here’s how Alexander describes the job and why it matters:

As The Post’s new ombudsman, I am its internal critic. My job is to represent the interests of readers, hold The Post to high standards and explain its inner workings to an often-suspicious public. If I do my job well, readers will be empowered, and The Post will be more accountable, trusted and essential.

Ombudsmen aren’t the only way to hold newspapers and TV stations accountable, of course. The public does that too, and does it faster and more effectively than ever thanks to the Internet and social media.

But ombudsmen have a few advantages readers and viewers don’t. They have unlimited access and, theoretically at least, support from top editors for the mission of keeping the news organization honest. As a result, they’re not exactly beloved in the newsroom. Alexander says he expects to be welcomed like “the dreaded investigator from internal affairs.”

Like his predecessor at the Post, Alexander will write a weekly column. Here’s wishing him the best of luck in what’s always a difficult job, but especially now in these very difficult times.

Say no to staging

It’s always good to be reminded that there are ethical lines in journalism that shouldn’t be crossed. One of them is staging–telling people what to do or asking them to repeat what they’ve done so you can get it on camera.  As Tracy Boyer puts it at Innovative Interactivity:

Allowing videographers to stage scenes, situations and/or actions is NOT journalism. We are here to document what we see, not recreate what we missed.

I can’t argue with that, but I wish Boyer hadn’t titled her post “Broadcast journalism ethics needs to change.”  And I wish she hadn’t asked, “How is it that journalism ethics can vary so greatly from print to broadcast?”

The truth is, there are unethical journalists in every medium–something Boyer briefly acknowledges before zeroing in on her main target, TV photographers.  What set her off was this New Yorker piece describing an ABC News interview:

Before the taping, Ron gave Tina a bereft, searching glance. The cameraman was hoping to capture it. “Could you look at your wife again?” he said. Then he asked Tina, “Could you look at your husband?”

To Boyer, that suggests the photojournalist was trying to make up for having missed the “money shot” he needed to create an emotional story. To me, it suggests the photojournalist knew he was going to need some cutaways so he could edit a two-person interview being shot with one camera.  Good people might disagree about whether that qualifies as staging.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not condone staging. It’s not just a violation of basic journalistic principles; it damages the credibility of every news photograph and video. The NPPA ethics code, which applies to all photojournalists, doesn’t use the word staging but its message is plain:

• Respect the integrity of the photographic moment.
• While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.

I’m not wearing blinders, by the way. I know staging happens. I’ve had fights with TV photojournalists who have tried to “direct” people while shooting B-roll for stories I’ve reported.  But I’ve also seen print photographers stage shots in the field, which is equally unethical.

To make the case against staging stick, it’s not useful to point the finger at just one set of violators (TV) and quote just one set of critics (print), as Anh Stack does in this piece at Black Star. Let’s hear from broadcast photojournalists who don’t engage in staging. And let’s be clear that we’re condemning a practice, not a medium or all the journalists who work there.

Should journalists be armed?

The question, posted on the international journalists’ network IJNet, drew me up short. Wouldn’t carrying a weapon jeopardize a journalist’s neutral status? Couldn’t it put them more at risk, especially in a war zone where a gun could make them appear to be combatants? So why even ask the question?  Here’s why:

Following the recent fatal shooting of Russian reporter Anastasia Baburova, who worked for Russia’s liberal opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, the paper’s management announced last week it had appealed to Russian authorities to allow its journalists to carry weapons.

News organizations in Mexico and Iraq have made similar requests recently, but it’s not a new issue. This AJR report a few years ago looked at threats against journalists in the Philippines.

So should some journalists, in some situations, be armed?  No, says Ron Steinman, former NBC bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. Wearing a gun, he says, does not protect you from harm, it causes harm.

When reporters carry a weapon, forget the argument of how the subject of your story looks at you when they see you armed. It changes how you cover news. Reporters never want to be part of the story. When you carry you have become a different person.

Sounds about right to me. What about you?

Training the new journalist

Hundreds of new journalism graduates are either out looking for jobs right now or soon will be following December graduation ceremonies.  At least as many experienced journalists are also out pounding the pavement for work in the wake of layoffs across the country.

NPR’s Alex Cohen sat down to talk with with Dean of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, Neil Henry, about what the future may hold for the journalism profession and journalism education.

How can journalism survive?

The most controversial element of the interview involves Henry’s assertion that more journalists will need to be entrepreneurs.  He suggests they won’t work for traditional media companies, rather they will be in business for themselves.  Unfortunately, when Cohen tried to press him on whether this would result in “journalism for hire,”  Henry really avoided answering the question.  However, he did say UC Berkeley’s j-school is working with the business school to develop courses that might help journalists make money outside the corporate journalism structure.

Still, it’s worth thinking about.  Obviously, there are some journalists who have gone out on their own to produce news content and profit from it, while seeming to uphold journalistic standards, but there aren’t many.  And several who have done it eventually seem to operate on much the same old economic model as journalism always has (i.e. Huffington Post with its Blackberry ads and outside investors).

So, how feasible is Henry’s idea?  Can journalism survive and thrive without the infrastructure created by big media companies?  Or will it have to?

Rating news by credibility

The latest entry in the online news aggregator market offers a new twist on story rankings. Unlike other social media sites, NewsCred doesn’t rank stories by popularity.  Instead, it asks users to judge whether stories, authors and publications are credible, and sorts them accordingly.

Anyone can customize a news feed by selecting sources to monitor. The available news sources range from Al Jazeera to the Washington Times, and the site also monitors popular blogs like Daily Kos and O’Reilly.  But if you want to weigh in on their credibility, you have to register.

The rankings don’t seem very useful at this point, since almost every source is getting top marks.  The average credibility score for all sources, including blogs, stands at 99.6% today.  But it’s a neat concept and worth keeping an eye on.

Multimedia ethics: E-mail interviews

In our text, Advancing the Story, we talk about some of the ethical issues raised in the digital age of newsgathering.  One newsgathering technique that’s becoming increasingly popular is the use of email to conduct interviews.  So, what is your responsibility for telling the audience about the way in which you gathered the information?  Here’s a good example of why it may matter from Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits contributor Peter Zollman.

Yesterday I was reading a MidwestBusiness.com article about Legacy.com , the obituary site that’s part-owned by the Tribune Co. Legacy.com faces a potential threat from Tributes.com — a new obituary site being spun off from Eons.com by one-time Monster.com head Jeff Taylor .

The article referred to “Legacy.com CEO Hayes Ferguson ” and later says, “He added in an interview… [etc].” Well, Hayes is a woman. (If you Google for her image, you may even spot one reference to “a very pregnant Hayes Ferguson” — an old image.) Also, she’s COO , not CEO.

This made me question whether the “interview” was actually an e-mail exchange or a more traditional interview — which in my opinion implies face-to-face. Way back when, when I was a reporter, it was drilled into me that the context of the information delivered is important — a telephone interview, an in-person interview, a newspaper or broadcast quote, or an e-mail exchange. (Oh, wait: We didn’t have e-mail back then…)

I shot the writer an e-mail (two, actually) pointing out the errors. Within an hour, they were fixed. Well done with the fast correction.

Zollman was actually using the piece to comment on how quickly the information was corrected online, but you do have to wonder if an e-mail interview contributed to the error.