August 3, 2002

Guidelines and key questions to consider when making decisions about news coverage related to advertising, business partnerships, sales initiatives and station marketing.

A 1998 RTNDF study of local television news showed that more than 8 out of 10 Americans questioned believe that advertisers have an “undue influence” over editorial content. Journalists should do all they can to erase that public perception. It should be clear that advertisers have no influence over news content. Journalists sometimes cover issues and events that conflict with the interests of advertisers. Journalists should be free to fairly and aggressively cover stories that involve advertisers, even if you show the advertisers in a “negative light.” News Directors have an affirmative duty to uphold these standards and help others in their station to understand and appreciate their enduring value.

Front-end conversations about your station’s business and journalism values are far more useful than facing the conflict of competing interest when money is “on the table” or an advertiser is on the phone requesting favorable coverage.

Questions to consider:

What topics does your station seldom or never cover that are connected to the clout advertisers have with your station? For example, how often does your newsroom investigate issues of health care, consumer complaints, or public health that might come in conflict with the interests of hospitals, car dealers or restaurants that advertise with you?

What is the pattern of your coverage of advertisers over time? Are advertisers mostly shown in a positive light? Do advertisers receive favorable or more frequent coverage than non-advertisers?

How clearly do advertisers understand that they have no role in determining editorial content or tone? Should your station’s sales contracts mention that specifically? Stations should provide orientation to all staff in order to help them understand station policies about the separation of sales and news interests.

Viewers/listeners have reason to believe that your news content is “for sale” when an advertiser underwrites specific news segments and special programming. For example, conflicts might arise when a hospital is the principal advertiser in a special about health insurance or when the local chamber of commerce underwrites a project on urban sprawl. However, news operations might legitimately seek advertising support for expensive or un-budgeted but worthy projects. They key question is, “does the advertiser have input or oversight over the editorial content?” The answer to that question should be apparent in the tone and content of the coverage.
The separation of news and advertising should stipulate that news anchors and reporters should never deliver commercial messages.

Stations should insure that journalistic merit and public service, not commercial interests, drive special projects.

Stations should establish guidelines for news anchors and reporters delivering public service messages, ensuring that the messages are of legitimate public interest, not colored by commercial tie-ins.

Stations should carefully consider how they define the journalistic role of weathercasters and sportscasters at their station. Those guidelines should include an explanation of when it is appropriate for weathercasters to mention a commercial product or service. If you promote news, weather and sports anchors as being part of the same news team, how could the station justify why each position has different standards with respect to commercial involvement? Even if you believe you can explain the reasons for different standards the public perception of a conflict of interest may undermine your journalistic credibility and hurt your station.

News operations should use press releases and video news releases very selectively and only when journalistically justified. Journalists should clearly inform viewers/listeners when corporations, public relations agencies, news release services, advertisers or others who are not journalists provide any material you are using in a news story. Viewers and listeners should know when a politician, political party, movie studio, theme park or other group or individual pays for satellite, fiber connection or studio time that the journalist uses for presenting a story.

When an advertiser is in the news, journalists should apply the same standards of factual accuracy, contextual authenticity, aggressiveness and fairness as you would to all other news content.

Questions to consider:

What standards do you have about commercials that use news-like graphics or sets or use presenters who appear to be news anchors or reporters? Should you, for example, allow such advertisements to air during a newscast? What disclaimers should appear before or after such an announcement clarifying that the commercial is NOT news content?

What policy does your station have for commercials that feature individuals who are current or former journalists even if those journalists did not formerly work at your station or network? How can you clarify that someone is paying this person to participate in this announcement?

• Broadcasters must earn reasonable profits to sustain professional news departments and provide quality coverage to viewers/listeners. And a station can “sell” its news to advertisers because it has credibility that produces ratings. Strongly resist the temptation to “make money” at the expense of your journalistic integrity.

• News directors and the journalists who work for them should recognize that development of new revenue streams, “value-added buys” and innovative marketing approaches are reasonable business strategies. However, stations should weigh the potential consequences those sales/promotion decisions may have on news coverage and a station’s journalistic reputation. News Directors should protect the news product from tactics that undermine journalistic integrity. Neither ratings diaries and/or meters nor demographic profiles should solely drive news coverage decisions.

• Stations should carefully consider when, if ever, is it appropriate for a journalist at your station to deliver public service messages. Conflicts may also arise when journalists serve as hosts for public service events or public service programming on your station. Journalists should protect their credibility when doing news-related public service projects such as telethons and public outreach projects. Recognize that by supporting even a worthy cause, that ethical and journalistic challenges could arise if that public service project becomes the subject of a news story. How will you handle the story if your station supported charity or cause comes under investigation for wrongdoing or is involved in a controversial issue? You must be willing to fully report such a story when it reflects negatively on an organization you have been publicly supporting. This may require you to hire someone from the outside to help oversee your reporting to ensure it is fair and aggressive.

• Stations clearly have a legitimate interest in attracting as many viewers as possible to their news programs. Some stations “tie-in” to entertainment programming as a strategy to “hold audiences” from the entertainment program top the news program. A conflict occurs when the “tie-in” consumes airtime and staff time that otherwise would be devoted to covering legitimate news stories.

Questions to consider:

• What would our viewers/listeners think if they knew about the business motives behind our newsroom decisions?”
How do you balance a story’s journalistic merit against the marketing and promotional value of a “tie-in?”
What other legitimate news stories might you cover if you did not dedicate time and resources to a “tie in?”

• The directors of sales, promotion, marketing and news should understand and respect every department’s unique role in the station’s mission and operation.

• Any communication between the sales department and the newsroom should be with the full knowledge and assistance of the News Director. Station policy should make it clear that sales executives should not directly contact newsroom staff about any issue involving news coverage but should communicate through the News Director or his/her appointees.

• News Directors should collaboratively and strategically work with other station leaders to address financial goals to prevent reliance on short-term profit seeking that can undermine the integrity of the news department. (For example, if a hospital wanted to sponsor a health report, what systems should you have in place to insure a full conversation about the challenges and opportunities of such an arrangement? Whose voice should be heard? What weight would be given to each voice? What overarching principles would guide the decision-making process? Who would make the final decision?)

• News Directors should help to develop and use clear protocols and guidelines that encourage communication between the sales, promotion and news departments while protecting journalistic independence.

• There is no inherent conflict in a station being profitable and the station’s commitment to producing sound journalism. The journalism becomes a tangible and legitimate vehicle in which to sell commercial advertising. News Directors should encourage all news employees to be knowledgeable about the operation of your business and the role your news department plays in your station and your community. Help everyone understand the business and journalism values that underpin your station, its credibility and its success.

Questions to consider:

• What guidelines does your station have with respect to when or whether sales executives may interact with journalists? What protocols have you put in place to be sure sales interests do not cloud news coverage decisions.

• How well does the news director and sales manager understand each other’s main pressures, interests and concerns? How well does each department manager interact with each other about issues of mutual concern? When it is appropriate for someone from sales at attend a news editorial meeting or for a news manager to attend a sales meeting?

• Stations should not sell sponsorships to individual stories, but it may be appropriate to sell the sponsorship of a news franchise such as health or business reports, weathercasts or sports scores. The sponsorships should NOT guarantee or imply coverage of any advertiser or their special interests. The sponsorship does not guarantee or imply “positive coverage” of any topic. Before selling a franchise, a station should be convinced that the topic to be sponsored deserves the coverage and placement in a newscast that it will receive even if there was no sponsorship involved.

• Many events you cover have commercial names and messages embedded in them. (For example, the Doral Open, Winston Cup Series, Tropicana Field, Microsoft timing system, etc.) Journalists should cover the story, remain grammatically correct and minimize the overt commercial message that is not part of the story they are covering. Journalists should consider whether it is necessary for clarity and/or accuracy in deciding if it is appropriate to air the name of a company sponsoring a sporting or community event.

• While journalists should avoid “giving a business a plug” by unnecessarily mentioning commercial names, there are times when not mentioning the name of a business can affect the viewers’/listener’s ability to understand a story. The public’s need to know is our primary interest. If naming a business or a product helps the public to understand a news story then that is a compelling reason to name the business or product. For example, if the Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled a child’s car seat, we should name the business and even the model of the car seat so consumers would know if they should take action. Consider whether in mentioning the name of a business, we are fair to that business. If may be unfair to mention one business and not mention others in the same business. Note: If the viewer/listener derives more benefit than the business itself or your station, then mentioning the businesses’ name is legitimate.

Questions to consider:

• When is it appropriate to allow an advertiser to buy adjacency spots when the advertiser has a connection to the news content, such as a stockbroker who wants a position next to a business story?

• Journalists should not accept “perks” such as gifts, free parking, VIP seating, or the use of press passes when the person using the press pass is not actually covering the event.

Questions to consider:

• What guidelines do you have to insure that your journalists and their families do not abuse your station’s business partnerships with an advertiser?

Online journalism presents special challenges to journalism organizations. New organizations should apply the same careful and clear business practices to their online journalism that they do to their on-air journalism. Content and coverage online should not be for sale. Hyperlinks that take the online user from your journalism site to other sites should only be used to add additional useful and responsible information. If a site builds a hyperlink from inside editorial content to commercial content, the site should clearly label that link. For example, if, in a story about a concert in your town, you build a link to a company that sells tickets to the event, the online journalism operation may link to that site if the online news organization gains no benefit from the link. If, however, the online site is being paid for each ticket it helps to sell, that fact should be revealed to the user.

• On-line, just as on-air, electronic journalism organizations should clearly distinguish advertising from editorial content. When a station financially benefits from content, it should be transparent to the user.

• Online journalists should establish guidelines for when it is appropriate to build a hyperlink to a business. Journalism sites should consider building buffer pages or on-screen explanations between the news content and commercial content informing the user that they are about to be linked to a commercial site. Special challenges

• Online, as on-air, news websites should consider where and how they display commercial messages. Online journalists should be aware that animation color and sound all can be powerful tools in attracting the online user’s attention. News operations should establish guidelines about how they display advertising compared to news content.

• Online journalists should carefully consider, for example, whether to build hyperlinks from a news story to a political candidate’s website or even to an opponent’s website. News websites should be clear about where a link will take a user and how including the link fits with a new organizations’ journalistic purpose.

Questions to consider:

• How does your news website reflect the values you have on the air? Where do the values conflict? How do you resolve those conflicts?

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

More News

Back to News