Buying a News Story
And now the news – brought to you by the people being covered in the news.
On Oct. 18, Portland television station WGME, Channel 13, sent anchor Kim Block and photographer Jason Nelson to Shanghai, China for nine days to report on a visit to that city by doctors associated with the Maine Foundation for Cardiac Surgery.
Those doctors were on a charitable mission, scheduled to perform operations on children with heart problems, educate Chinese physicians about the latest medical advances in cardiac care and deliver donations of specialized equipment.
But the foundation will not only be the subject of Block’s and Nelson’s reports, it’s also the funding source. The nonprofit organization paid for the plane flights and hotel rooms for the journalists. Neither the foundation nor WGME would reveal the cost of those travel expenses.
“There’s no ethical problem, because we’re disclosing the fact that they paid for the trip,” said Channel 13 news director Robb Atkinson. “I can’t afford to send someone to China in this economy.”
Atkinson said the foundation – run by a group of Portland-area doctors affiliated with a for-profit practice called Maine Heart Surgical Associates – approached the station about funding the story.
“They never told us what we can or can’t cover,” Atkinson said. “There’s no limitation on us.”
According to the news director, Block and Nelson will produce two to four stories, which will air on the station’s 6 o’clock newscasts during the third week in November, toward the end of the fall rating period for the Portland market. The station did no live reporting from China, nor did it attempt to ship tape back to Maine for airing during the trip, because, Atkinson said, the logistics proved too difficult.
Rick Morrone, the CEO of the doctors’ practice and vice president of the foundation, said the nonprofit’s purpose in making this arrangement with WGME was straightforward. It hopes the publicity will result in more money coming in.
“Like any foundation, the only way this happens is through donations,” Morrone said. “We saw this as a wonderful opportunity to have publicity.”
Besides its trips to China, the foundation also pays to bring children with serious heart ailments to Portland for treatment. Morrone said it spends $16,000 to $24,000 annually on such efforts. Medical care and housing once the young patients arrive in Maine are donated by local hospitals, doctors and the Ronald McDonald House.
A good group doing good work. And WGME’s coverage will probably help them do more.
No ethical harm, no ethical foul?
News organizations take money from people they cover all the time. A TV station reports on a candidate’s press conference and airs a 30-second spot for the same candidate later in the newscast. A newspaper investigates a local company victimized by a computer hacker. Elsewhere in the paper, there’s a full-page ad from the same company, reassuring customers their credit-card numbers are safe. Public radio gets the scoop on a controversial plan to preserve forest land, a plan involving an environmental group and a development company that both help underwrite the news program.
In each of these cases, there’s an important difference from the WGME situation: There’s no implication that the money spent on advertising buys anything more than the ads themselves.
Purchasing time on the TV station doesn’t mean the news department will put a favorable slant on – or even cover – the story about the candidate. That full-page ad doesn’t guarantee the newspaper won’t include information in its story about the company’s slow response to the hacking or warnings to consumers that their accounts may not be as well protected as claimed. And an underwriting check doesn’t mean public radio won’t report on the opinions of those critical of the land deal.
There’s no quid pro quo for the advertiser. At least, there shouldn’t be.
Most journalists keep their distance from the money end of the business, particularly when it comes to stories where a question of bias could arise.
“Underwriting is not connected to any news story,” said Keith Shortall, news director of Maine Public Radio.
“There’s no contact between the news room and any funders. I don’t even know who’s doing the underwriting most of the time.”
But what about non-controversial stories, feel-good stories, stories of somebody doing something to make the world a better place? Isn’t it OK to relax the rule about avoiding special arrangements between the people who pay and the people who report if the end product is clearly of public benefit? And wouldn’t it be even more acceptable if there was no other way to get this kind of story than to accept financial support from the story’s subjects?
Not at public radio.
“We would not accept free travel,” said Shortall. “We have a prohibition on reporters accepting anything of value from anyone we’re covering.”
At WGME’s biggest rival in the Portland market, the rules are much the same.
“We avoid free travel,” said news director Maureen O’Brien of WCSH-TV, Channel 6. “We try to avoid the inherent ethical question that raises. We do turn [such offers] down on a fairly regular basis.”
Bob Steele – a visiting journalism professor at DePauw University in Indiana and a faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a school for professional journalists in St. Petersburg, Florida – said arrangements such as the one between WGME and the foundation take reporting into “dangerous territory.”
Steele said simply adding a disclaimer to the story concerning its funding source isn’t sufficient, because there’s no way for viewers to judge its fairness.
“What questions were not asked?” he said. “What angles were not explored? What video was edited out because it might not reflect well on the funding source? We don’t know what frame was put on the story.”
Jeffrey Seglin, a professor at Emerson College in Boston and the author of a regular column on ethics for the New York Times Syndicate, said agreeing to accept free travel because the station can’t afford to pay for the trip opens the door to even more questionable arrangements.
“What’s the next step?” Seglin said. “Do you allow companies to have access to the news because you can’t afford the equipment they can provide?”
That’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. In the 1980s, Central Maine Power funded trips to power plants in northern Quebec for Maine journalists covering CMP’s proposal to import large amounts of Canadian hydro-power. Several news organizations took the company up on the free flights.
If a charitable organization is an acceptable news partner, Steele said, is a military organization? At least one news organization in the state has said yes. In the 1990s, Bangor Daily News reporters and photographers took free trips overseas on training missions with the Maine Army National Guard in return for favorable coverage.
How about a government agency? Thousands of journalists, including me, applied to ride on the space shuttle in the 1980s.
“Where do you draw the line?” Steele said.
His answer: Don’t make any deals like this. They all lead to an ethical quagmire.
Both Steele and Seglin rejected the argument that there’s no other way to get the story. They said creative news organizations could come up with ideas for providing coverage, by hiring a freelancer in China or by covering the story locally before and after the trip. “It may be less sexy, less compelling,” Steele said. “But it also wouldn’t compromise your journalistic ethics.”
As for the we-can’t-afford-it-any-other-way argument, Steele is unimpressed.
“I always hear that argument,” he said. “I’ve heard it for the last 35 years. It’s always tough times.”
Steele is also not buying the claim that this might be an acceptable practice when covering a foundation doing good work. Many foundations do good work, Steele said, but some are also scrutinized for the way they use funds. They can be involved in controversial issues that aren’t obvious at first glance. And there might be competing nonprofits offering the same services. Do they all deserve equal coverage or just the ones willing to pay?
“Basically, the foundation has bought news time and bought themselves a news story,” Steele said. “Just because it’s a story we can’t afford to do, that doesn’t give us license to sell off chunks of our news.”
“This is opportunistic,” said Seglin, “and they [WGME] crossed the line.”
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at email@example.com.