Blurring the Lines Between News and Advertising Content

Gannett's Indianapolis Star has a real mess on its hands involving a breach of ethics and the readers' trust, started when the paper "repurposed" a three-year-old feature story and photo spread on summer camps in a new camp guide advertising section with

Apr 13, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Gannett’s Indianapolis Star has a real mess on its hands involving a breach of ethics and the readers’ trust. Here’s what the Indianapolis News Guild reported:

“Features reporter TJ Banes wrote on summer camps in January 2007 — only to have the story ‘repurposed’ and used with her byline as part of a metro section ‘summer camp guide’ that was labeled a ‘special advertising feature’ in the print Star metro section Tuesday, March 23, 2010. The story and two photos were used without the writer’s or photographer’s knowledge and the content was manipulated to make it appear to be current. … It was altered to mislead readers in a way that could damage this reporter’s credibility with the sources of the original story.

“It was an embarrassment to the ethical standards the Indy News Guild has been pushing Star management to uphold since 2006, when the company first presented the idea of having journalists produce and edit so-called ‘advertorial’ content. The summer camp article is a glaring example of why the Guild has raised objections to the unit’s work being repurposed in this manner. It allows another department — marketing, custom content, momslikeme or whomever — to use our work in such a careless and unprofessional fashion that it reflects badly upon the journalism produced by those in the Star newsroom.

“The Guild wants original reporters and photographers notified in the future if another department reuses a story or photograph. Guild members have the right to have their bylines removed from their work if they object to the way it is used. The online version of the story (which we spotted on and asked to be removed from the site) had no markings that indicated it was advertising-produced.

“This fiasco … violates Gannett’s written Principles of Ethical Conduct for Newsrooms which states, ‘We will be honest in the way we gather, report and present news’ and ‘We will differentiate advertising from news.’ To their credit a clarification was issued, the story was pulled off the Web and an explanation provided to the reporter.”

I don’t remember this happening at The Enquirer before or since Gannett bought the paper. Sure, we wrote crappy promo stories for one cause or another, but what happened at The Indy Star recently was of a different magnitude. My fear was that this might be a corporate policy which all 80-plus dailies must follow.

I sent the Indy Guild story to Enquirer Editor Tom Callinan and asked about Enquirer policy. Here’s what he responded in an email:

“Theoretically, I guess a company could make the point that content generated by their staffs using their resources is fair game for whatever use the company wishes. Legally, that presents some legal issues in appropriation of images, quotes, etc. for commercial purposes.

“Journalistically, The Enquirer’s practice is to use freelancers, etc. for third-party, sponsored or advertising products. I would have to approve any variance from that approach, and it has only come up once when an ad rep wanted to use a file photo in an ad and I said no. I would suppose there may be an occasion (a skyline of Cincinnati photo, etc.) that we may consider. But it’s pretty well understood here that we separate content generation from news and non-news.

“Some confusion may come in when people confuse the awful term ‘advertorial’ with special sections (Fashion, Back to School, etc.) in which news content appears in logical adjacencies with advertising related to the topic. But the advertisers have no direct influence on the content.”

Curmudgeon Notes

• Why did The Enquirer convene various activists to address black-on-black homicides in Cincinnati? The killings are no worse than many other years. To many Cincinnatians, this violence apparently has become an acceptable risk of living in the city — sort of like the mayor having a bodyguard. However, unlike rioting and looting that followed Timothy Thomas’ shooting death by a white cop in 2001, today’s killings rarely provoke more than 30 seconds on the late news, often with a police mug shot of the victim.

Or put another way: What is The Enquirer’s role since its intervention by bringing people together at the paper? The paper’s job is reporting and commentary. When it creates the events about which it reports and comments, that’s a conflict of interest.

It happened after Thomas was killed. In an ill-conceived desire to help, The Enquirer and Gannett sponsored community conversations that were so poorly attended that photos sometimes showed the staff person rather than empty chairs.

At the same time, reporters all but ignored other community responses that involved thousands at the neighborhood level and helped shape the Collaborative Agreement that initiated reforms in the police department and police/community relations.

Good people will argue that civic journalism involves the dailies in identifying and solving serious local problems. But who reports what’s going on in the meantime?

Why not talk to lots Cincinnatians where we live instead of anointing a few leaders and bringing them to the paper’s conference or board room? If these “leaders” failed to come together or to act more forcefully without the paper’s intervention, why not report why? They know each other or should; many of their individual efforts have been reported in The Enquirer.

We need uncompromised journalism more than we need Enquirer involvement in efforts to reduce these killings. Otherwise, residual trust in the paper’s reporting will be a casualty while the killings continue.

• I rarely read comments posted about stories in The Enquirer or other dailies. There is little to learn beyond confirmation that evil unfailingly accompanies anonymity online. I’m grateful to colleague Kevin Osborne for reporting what appears to be an Enquirer double standard when it comes to comments, being protective of young, attractive, white, affluent or well-connected victims of accidental death and less so of accident victims who don’t share those attributes. Here is the core of what Kevin says, provoked by comments following stories about St. X senior and football star Matt James, who fell from a Florida balcony during Spring Break:

“In articles and blog items about James’ death, The Cincinnati Enquirer stopped allowing reader comments after some people left rude or distasteful postings. That’s certainly the newspaper’s call to make, but what about all the similarly hateful comments made in response to articles about the latest victims of shooting violence in Over-the-Rhine or Avondale? Inevitably, commenters leave nasty and thinly veiled racist remarks that blame the victim for being out late at night or hanging out in a high-crime area. The Enquirer never stops all commenting in such instances, although it will remove specific comments if readers complain.

“This isn’t an isolated incident. The Enquirer also blocked comments on articles about the death of Kerri Shryock in December 2008, when she fell to her death after a harness failed during play rehearsals at Crossroads Community Church in Oakley. The newspaper reportedly stopped comments after some church members who worked at companies like Procter & Gamble complained. View the latest article about shootings, however, and be prepared to wade through some vile comments.” (Kevin's full Porkopolis column is here; discussion of online comments is in the second section.)

• A confessional moment. I’ll lose two of my favorite free online papers if I don’t subscribe when London’s Times and Sunday Times vanish behind a paywall in June. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m a dithering hypocrite.

I’ve never worked for free. No one should. I know something of the economics of newspapers, having started and closed one daily and seen three of the four for which I worked die. Owners shouldn’t work for nothing either. They deserve a fair return on their investments.

In my eighth decade, however, I’ve become accustomed to free access to some of the world’s best papers online, salving my conscience with the knowledge that my clicks earn them money. The London Times and Sunday Times are the first of my favorites to impose an online subscription … or else.

Complicating my angst is that The Times and Sunday Times are owned by Rupert Murdoch. He’s hardly one of my journalism models, his financial successes and love of print notwithstanding.

Other quality London papers — Guardian, Independent, Telegraph — continue to be free online, and their publishers must be watching Murdoch with fear and trembling: fear that he scoops up money they’ve missed and trembling in ecstatic anticipation that his online readers will migrate to their free content.

• You don’t have to be a paparazzo or newsmagazine photographer to run afoul of Great Britain’s mindless anti-photography campaign. In its expanding Stalinist intrusions into private and public life, Britain’s Labour government is creating conditions in which the smartest thing any tourist can do is go somewhere else or leave your camera home.

The assault on photos is justified broadly under anti-terrorism laws or public anxieties about being photographed in public. The real reason is that police and police wannabes known as Police Community Support Officers can do what they like. The last thing you want to do is “accompany officers to the station to aid their enquiries.” News and other photographers have protested to apparently little effect, according to London papers. The problem apparently continues, although senior police officers across the country have urged officers to back off.

So here’s my question: Why risk harassment for photographing Tower or Blackfriars Bridge at sundown when Florentines would love another million photos of the Ponte Vecchio over the Arno at golden sunset?

You can be stopped for taking photos of Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, St. Pancras station or anything else that excites some copper or dim “support officer.” They only need their suspicion to stop you and, if they choose, invoke anti-terrorism law to confiscate your images and/or equipment. It’s no defense that you’re on public property taking a photo of public property or of people walking into a train station.

The irony is that Britain is our leading surveillance state, with closed circuit TV cameras photographing almost everyone all of the time. The new interference recalls my first encounters with oppressive government attempts to prevent photos … in 1960.

In Prague, a Czech paramilitary policeman knocked my camera to the ground when I tried to photograph our hotel. I never got that photo. In Rostov-on-Don, I was photographing a poor market. A plain-clothes policewoman straight out of an anti-Soviet cartoon directed two young blue-shirted constables to take me to a nearby cop shop. Despite our language gap, she made me understand that the background to my market photos was the PTT, the postal, telephone and telegraph building. It was hardly two months since the Soviets shot down an American U2 spy plane, captured pilot Gary Powers, displayed the wrecked plane and caught the White House lying about the mission. Anxiety ruled.

Saying I was an American student didn’t help. My traveling companions had no idea where I’d gone that day. An “Oh, shit” moment. In hopes of getting out of there, I stripped the film out of my camera and gave it to her, ruined in the light. She relaxed. The cops relaxed. The drunks filling the room relaxed. I was shown the door with a finger-wagging admonition, “Nyet, nyet” with a nod toward the PTT. “Dah, dah,” I responded.

It wouldn’t be the first or last time I was happy to carry two similar cameras. I still have the photos of the market. I can’t even remember what was on the roll I ruined.

• For years, I taught an Evening College course at the University of Cincinnati dedicated to helping nonprofits/candidates get favorable responses from local news media. Colleagues and competitors joined me, keeping the course relevant and fresh as media needs changed. We also discussed “crisis communications.” That’s when things go very, very wrong: A boiler explodes in a school, feds raid your chemical factory for evidence of pollution, an inexplicable landslide takes down part of your landfill.

Crisis communications requires a totally different mindset from regular public relations. It begins with top-down recognition of a very, very bad problem.

The Vatican needs crisis communications counseling because it’s trying to deflect news media through classic public relations: Deny the extent of the problem or veracity of the accusations, attack the messenger, defend the boss, play the victim. Characterizing news stories as petty gossip or anti-Catholic mutterings won’t make the revelations go away. So far, none of the national churches affected has said the victims’ claims or evidence of coverups are false.

Michelle Boorstein in The Washington Post found the prefect quote to sum up the situation: “My best answer would be a primal scream,” Russell Shaw, who was the U.S. bishops’ spokesman in the 1970s and ’80s, said when asked about the Vatican’s recent dealings with the public. “It reflects a totally inadequate understanding and mind-set as to the whole subject of communications.”

I’d add only that quoting Shaw was inspired. Religion reporters considered him to be a funny, dry and totally honest spokesman for the bishops. His remark is perfectly in character.

• The April 10-16 issue of The Economist looks at what it takes to rehabilitate a brand when real problems overwhelm its value: Tiger, Tylenol, Toyota. If we see Roman Catholicism as a brand, The Economist’s columnist has something of value to say:

“The key to a successful relaunch lies in making a cool-headed assessment of how much the scandal damages your company. Does it involve life and limb, rather than less consequential matters? Has it spread beyond particular products or particular divisions to afflict the entire corporate brand? If the answer to both questions is yes, then companies are well advised to go into collective overdrive….”

The Economist discusses two of the most important rules of successful crisis management: “First, the boss needs to take charge. This means sidelining corporate cluck-cluckers. … It also means putting the survival of the company above personal considerations. … Many of the most damaging crises, by contrast, have resulted from foot-dragging at the top — as appears to be the case with Toyota today.

“The second rule is that crisis-racked firms should redouble their focus on their customers. … Companies have a habit of … talking endlessly about how they are fixing this or reorganising that.”

Most successful decontaminators look at the world from the customer/consumer perspective: “Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the Tylenol crisis (when an unidentified attacker poisoned some bottles of the painkiller) is the gold standard of crisis management because the company simply recalled all Tylenol without hesitation or demur.”

Finally, “Crises can even give brands a long-term boost, provided the rehabilitation is properly handled. … There is nothing Americans like more than a redemption story — particularly when the man being redeemed is supremely good at his job.”

• CBS evening news came to Cincinnati for a major Sunday story: cop cams. It reported how a few street cops are wearing small video cameras that record what they see and do. Video was good. Chief Thomas Streicher Jr. wants to put a camera on every street cop. If only CBS News, once the gold standard, hadn’t called him “Tim.” What happened to “call me what you like but spell my name right?” I guess it died with “Get in first, but first get it right.”

• By now, you’ve probably seen the online video of gunners on U.S. helicopters in Iraq killing a dozen men on a Baghdad street. The transcript and recording of the U.S. soldiers have a “Yeehaw!” quality to them, and I can’t tell if anyone pointed a weapon at the Americans. Among the dead are a Reuters photographer and his driver, who were walking and talking with the other men.

The military refused to release the encrypted video. Someone leaked it to WikiLeak, and within days unnamed military people confirmed the decrypted video’s veracity. Within days, NPR’s Morning Edition news reader repeatedly referred to the “unarmed” Iraqis and the Americans being engaged in a “firefight.” Who edits this stuff? You can’t have a firefight with unarmed victims.

• It appears that Apache helicopter crewmen mistook the photographer’s long lens for a weapon, maybe a rocket propelled grenade. I can believe that. It was a lesson I learned in the Congo.

My telephoto lens and its lens hood were long and black and I carried it over my shoulder on a strap. Worse, in this context, the lens focused by squeezing and releasing a pistol grip. Ethiopian UN soldiers assigned to guard our convoy in Katanga pointed their Garand M1 rifles at me the moment I raised my camera. I changed lenses, and they looked into my lens and smiled.

• Canada’s conservative national government is muzzling scientists who want to speak candidly about climate change, according to mainstream and alternate media. Montreal Gazette reported on a leaked Environment Canada (their EPA) document showing that the information restrictions brought in by the Harper government successfully limited access to government researchers.

“Scientists have noticed a major reduction in the number of requests, particularly from high-profile media, who often have same-day deadlines,” said the Environment Canada document. “Media coverage of climate change science, our most high-profile issue, has been reduced by over 80 per cent.”

Since 2007, Environment Canada has required senior federal scientists to seek permission from the government prior to giving interviews, often requiring them to get approval from supervisors of written responses to the questions submitted by journalists before any interview. “Many [federal climate change] scientists are recognized experts in their field, have received media training and have successfully carried out media interviews for many years. … Our scientists are very frustrated with the new process. They feel the intent of the policy is to prevent them from speaking to media. … There is a widespread perception among Canadian media that our scientists have been ‘muzzled’ by the media relations policy.”

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]