Critical Thinking: Is An Entity's Funding A Paper's Coverage Smart Or Does It Go Against Journalism Ethics?
Posted: 10/9/2013 | By: Nu Yang
Last spring, the Orange County Register in Santa Ana, Calif. launched weekly sections covering three major universities in the county, but the proposal says the schools are funding the paper’s coverage. Do you think this is a smart way to bring in new revenue or do you think it goes against journalism ethics?
Amanda Coyne, 20, junior, University of South Carolina (Columbia, S.C.)
Coyne is the news editor of The Daily Gamecock, the editorially independent student newspaper of the University of South Carolina. She is a political science and journalism student who hopes to become a state government and politics reporter at a major metropolitan daily newspaper upon her graduation in May 2015. She is currently an on-call features and metro reporter at The State in Columbia, S.C.
As a publication, covering your advertisers can sometimes be tricky. However, the newsroom and advertising office are almost always separate, so there’s not much risk in most stories. When it comes to your advertisers funding a special section that covers them—especially in the case of colleges and universities, which are major institutions in their communities—it’s a different case. There’s a huge question of ethics here. If a negative story about a college is printed or will be printed in this special section, will the college threaten to pull the plug on funding? Equally importantly, will an editor bend under the pressure and allow that threat to stop the story from running?
It’s tricky. What is vital in this situation is a good relationship between the reporters and editors involved with the section and the communications staff and administration at each college or university. While it seems higher education public relations professionals are almost as well-trained in question avoidance as politicians, a trusting relationship can go a long way when conflict arises.
A strict agreement with the colleges not to pull advertising in response to reporting is also vital. The newspaper industry is still rooted in business and driven by revenue, and great content alone will not keep a publication financially solvent. Everyone loves positive press, especially institutions of higher education, but there needs to be a solid written agreement that truthful, accurate stories that may not portray the school in its preferred light won’t cause the breakdown of the business relationship.
Important stories come out of colleges every day, especially those that are publicly funded. There may be a controversial hiring or spending decision, students may be involved in crime off campus and Greek organizations may come under fire for hazing allegations. All of these are stories that need to be told and all of these are stories a university may try to squash. The threat of pulling the plug on advertising revenue should not be an option for any organization that wants to keep a story from being told.
Rob Blethen, 40, publisher, Walla Walla (Wash.) Union-Bulletin
Blethen is a member of the fifth generation of Blethens that have been majority owners of the Seattle Times Co. since 1896. He graduated from the University of Washington in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in communications and has worked in every major department during his 19-year newspaper career in Washington and Maine. He has been publisher of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since early 2009.
The arrangement has the potential to be smart if strict guidelines are put in place and it is done in the right environment. To make this worthwhile, the newspaper would need to clearly spell out the relationship to the reader, have a long-standing trust built up with the community and have a newsroom with a history of upholding the highest levels of ethics and professionalism. With the challenging revenue trends, the new reality is newspapers need to find additional sources of revenue to be able to produce quality local journalism. With the right arrangement, the funder isn’t controlling the content, but is providing the resources so that additional newsworthy content can be provided.
To keep the coverage appropriate and not cross the threshold where the public trust or journalism ethics are violated, there needs to be a clear understanding with the funder that all editorial control is at the discretion of the newspaper and that the funder will see the coverage at the same time as the reader. Suggestions for coverage and guest columns by the funder can be made, but the choice needs to be entirely the newspaper’s. The arrangement would also need to be transparent with the specifics clearly and visibly spelled out each time the coverage appeared. This type of an arrangement may be less controversial in a section like sports, where you could potentially see a professional team sponsoring additional coverage. Foundations are also a logical funding source.
While there will always be critics of anything new and innovative, it is important to remain open to reader feedback and gauge how widespread any potential damage to credibility might be. An increase in revenue isn’t worth destroying a newspaper’s reputation for fair and balanced coverage.
Slightly different, but a similar goal of increasing local coverage has been our successful community contributor initiative in Walla Walla. We have more than 30 community contributors who submit regular guest columns covering topics from health and fitness to coping with addiction. Readers appreciate the coverage and the price to the newspaper (free) is right.