Can You Help This Reader Manage An Unethical Journalist?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 8, 2013 – 6:02 AM

A reader recently wrote in with a problem he’s facing with a local journalist.

His company frequently releases news that impacts the local community and could be fairly considered “newsworthy.” The problem? He works in a small market with just one television station—and that station is irked that his company hasn’t purchased advertising with them.

There’s obviously supposed to be a firewall between news and advertising. The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is clear on this one: “Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.”

But the head of this local television station has repeatedly complained to this reader for having the audacity to call his station for news coverage considering that the company has declined to advertise with them.

Salesman Pushy With Contract

What advice would you offer this reader? Keep in mind that the television station is the only one in town, so maintaining positive relations is the ideal outcome here.

Also, have you encountered this type of breach between news and advertising? How have you managed it? And is that practice more common than I think it is?

Please leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section below. My reader and I look forward to learning from you on this one.

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Comments (12)

  1. By Kim M:

    Buy the TV station. :)

  2. By Deborah Brody:

    Unfortunately, this happens often in small markets. No, It is not ethical, but it is not illegal. It can work the other way too. If you often buy advertising, then the publication or media outlet will cover your news. Have you ever picked up a women’s interest magazine? Recently, I saw an article about a weight loss supplement that was heavily advertised on the next page. Often, the products that are recommended in the magazine also end up advertising, because the editors give the heads up to the advertisers.
    I would advice your reader to consider advertising. If he thinks that his audience is watching this source for news about his company, they may also be amenable to advertising.

  3. By gartnercomms:

    A view from Germany – I’d say the smaller the media outlet gets (especially for private TV stations), the more commonplace are those types of interferences.

    My take would be this:

    Like your reader, probably everyone else in this community knows about the fact that news coverage on this channel, to some extent, is linked to advertising. This may diminish the station’s editorial value a bit; yet as it looks like, this fact hasn’t prevented your reader from seeking news coverage there anyway.

    Hence, if he continues to believe editorial coverage there is worthwhile despite the blurring between news and advertising, I’d say just go ahead and buy some advertising to ensure further goodwill for your news coverage.

  4. By Ardi:

    The best would be to sit down with them and explain that advertising and public affairs are two separate branches within the company, and setup a meeting for them with the advertisement people, walk them to the meeting introduce them and leave the meeting, as a sign that we do not interfere with each others business

  5. By P Smith:

    I’ve not encountered this, thank heavens, and I have worked in smaller markets. I would find it difficult to purchase advertising to obtain news coverage, on principle. One might be tempted to request a copy of the station’s editorial policy, but that would be picking a fight. Why not look for other ways to reach your communication objectives? I would also not send news releases to this station since that is essentially what the station head has asked you to do. Perhaps no longer receiving your news might stimulate some sorely needed sober second thought.

  6. By John Boyle:

    If it was truly news worthy I am sure it would be covered ad buy or not. What Mr. Business owner is doing is ethically questionable. He would call it Guerilla marketing by trying to get FREE advertising. The station head is no fool and wont be played a patsy.

    I wish we could see these so called “newsworthy” press releases.

    If I was Mr. Biz owner I would do both. Buy some ad time and keep sending out press releases. BAAAM double down. If they wont do the stories then pull your ads, spin his “ethic’s” on him in your favor.

    I line up squarely with Mr. station manager.

  7. By Brad Phillips:

    Thanks to all of you for your comments and thoughts for this reader.

    Let’s say that advertising isn’t an option in this case due to a lack of budget during a very difficult economy. What other strategies might you offer this PR pro?

    Thanks again for your good thinking!

  8. By Stephanie McCurdy:

    Is the local station owned by a larger group? If so, the reader might consider taking his concerns “up the chain” to the corporate overlord. He would certainly risk alienating the station with this tactic, but it could have a positive outcome if handled carefully and empathetically.

  9. By Brett:

    I think this situation depends on how important getting exposure on this station is to the overall success of their initiatives.

    Does this station reach their key demographics? Are there any other avenues to connect with those communities such as local newspapers, social media etc.? If so, the company may wish to bypass the station altogether and save themselves the headache.

    If the company does explore other alternatives and is successful with those avenues, it may be possible they end up getting the TV coverage they want anyways. If media in this company’s area are anything like those in most other areas of the country, they’ll want to cover what every other outlet has. Sometimes pack journalism may work in your favour!

    But if everything else fails, they may want to consider biting the bullet and spending some money on advertising. And since the head of the station has already linked news coverage to advertising dollars, I would think the company would be in a position to negotiate news coverage during the ad buy.

  10. By Leigh Ann:

    As a freelance journalist, I find this policy disturbing. And buying ads would just be rewarding and helping perpetuate the practice, which is widely known to be unethical and a disservice to viewers.

    First, I would not deal with the head of the news station. It sounds like he’s more concerned with, and perhaps educated in, dollars and cents than journalism. I would pitch a reporter individually.

    If that didn’t yield results after a while, I’d ask the reporter if they’d have time to suggest anything I could do to make my pitches more newsworthy or helpful for them.

    The reporters probably know of this ads-for-coverage policy, but I’d go forward as if they didn’t. They may at least not be in support of it, and you want them on your side.

  11. By Richard:

    It sounds as though the business and the TV station are at an impasse. Until you have the budget to advertise, I would focus my efforts on directly reaching your target audience rather than relying on the TV station when it clearly isn’t interested. That means social media, collecting email addresses of potential customers and possibly emailing your releases to them, possibly mailing your info to these individuals at their physical address and maybe even finding alternative news outlets. Maybe you partner with other nearby businesses to share distribution lists or to place your business info/brochures/flyers at one another’s locations.

    To my mind, there’s no point banging your head against a wall if it isn’t working. Time to explore alternative options.

  12. By Jeff Domansky:

    Your reader said budget is limited. My advice is to ramp up social media and speak directly to consumers or other target audiences through the wide range of social media channels available from Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest to YouTube, SlideShare and Vimeo. If there is a newspaper I’d buy a few ads where the company did get some coverage just to make a point to the TV station that it cuts both ways. Much can be accomplished in social media with creativity and a good story and the TV station me realize there on good news stories.

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