Moviegoers at Cinemagic cinemas in southern Maine have recently been greeted by an unusual on-screen assemblage. Before the feature film rolls, they have to sit through a two-minute trailer featuring the News 13 staff from WGME-TV in Portland. While ads on movie screens aren't anything out of the ordinary, this one stands out because it appears to cross one of the major ethical boundaries for journalists.
"Hi, there, and welcome to Cinemagic," says anchor Kim Block, sitting on the same set used for her nightly newscasts. "You're about to see a great movie at the region's premier family entertainment cinema."
Reporters, editors, anchors and others in the news business don't normally do advertisements, other than promotions for their own broadcast outlet or publication. The reasons are simple: It gives the impression that favorable news coverage can be purchased, and it creates a conflict of interest if the business being promoted is ever the subject of a news story. In the case of Cinemagic, for instance, this arrangement might raise questions in viewers' minds as to whether movies playing at that theater were being reviewed more often during newscasts than those running at rival outlets and whether those reviews were unbiased by the stations' connection with the movie chain.
"This viewing experience," says anchor/reporter Jeff Peterson, "is going to be nothing like you've ever seen before."
The clip continues with sports anchor Dave Eid, meteorologist Charlie Lopresti, anchor/reporter Gregg Lagerquist and anchor Kiley Bennett reminding audience members to shut off their cell phones, avoid littering, refrain from smoking and limit unnecessary talking. Then, the crew briefly promotes Channel 13's 5 o'clock newscast, before Block wraps things up.
"Enjoy the movie," she says. "And thanks for selecting Cinemagic."
WGME general manager Terry Cole said there's no ethical conflict with the trailer because, "It's not an ad … It's a station promotion." Cole said WGME pays Cinemagic to run the piece under a "partnership" agreement between the two companies. He said he didn't have the document in front of him and couldn't be more specific about the nature of that deal.
"Any time you can get your anchors in front of a fixed audience," Cole said, "you do it."
"It's probably a pretty good idea," said station news director Rodd Atkinson. "Thirty thousand people, by the theater's estimate, on a weekend see that." Atkinson said the ad campaign was modeled after one used by WGN-TV in Chicago.
As for Block calling the theater "the region's premier family entertainment cinema," both Cole and Atkinson said that was a factual statement, rather than advertising, because Cinemagic is the only local theater showing films in high definition.
"We're not promoting people to come to the theater," Cole said. "We're talking to people who are already there."
That's not quite true. The trailer is accessible to non-theatergoers on WGME's Web site at www.wgme.com/trailer/cinemagic_generic.shtml
The national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, Christine Tatum, took note of this unusual promotion in her blog on that group's Web site, lumping the trailer in the same category with a Texas TV station that hired a beauty pageant winner with no journalistic credentials to anchor newscasts (www.spj.org/blog/blogs/president/archive/2007/06/16/7676.aspx
). Tatum called WGME's promotion, "one of the biggest assaults on journalistic integrity ever to hit the silver screen."
Channel 13 is owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group.