The Separation of News and Sales

Veteran journalist Glen Mabie resigned from his position of news director at WEAU-TV in Eau Claire, Wisconsin last week over a disagreement about how his news department would cover medical news and features in the wake of a sponsorship deal with one area hospital. According to the Leader-Telegram, the deal meant that face time for medical expertise would have gone to those affiliated with the sponsoring hospital and nobody else. Mabie quit, saying he couldn’t “with a clear conscience go into that newsroom and tell the staff that this was a good thing.”

I don’t know Glen, but I dealt with this very issue several times as a news director, although the financial problems of the stations weren’t nearly as acute back then as they are today. It was usually a sales account exec “asking” that if we were going to do stories that required medical expertise, could we please use expertise associated with sponsors? I had no problem with that (should we deliberately avoid interviewing sponsors?), but this situation is a little different. It’s being positioned as a done deal, whereas I always had the choice.

News directors are under tremendous pressure these days to help the sales department. Gone are the days when the answer would automatically be “no,” and the reasons for that are complex and many. Refusing to coöperate just because it conflicts with traditional views of “objectivity” is like refusing to bail water when the boat on which you’re riding is sinking. I’m not suggesting that the sales department run the news department, but there are ways to help without actually violating ethical standards.

There will be more stories like this in the months ahead and, sadly, more careers ending with a thud. Perhaps what we ought to do instead is take a real hard look at this wall between news and sales and explore the assumptions that built it in the first place. We’re trying awfully hard, it seems to me, to protect “objectivity,” when the people formerly known as the audience either don’t think we have any or already recognize it for the illusion that it really is. Take a look, for example, at this study from Sacred Heart University and ask yourself (honestly) how far our “objectivity” has gotten us with the people we’re supposed to serve?

“The fact that an astonishing percentage of Americans see biases and partisanship in their mainstream news sources suggests an active and critical consumer of information in the U.S.” stated James Castonguay, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of SHU’s Department of Media Studies & Digital Culture. “The availability of alternative viewpoints and news sources through the Internet no doubt contributes to the increased skepticism about the objectivity of profit-driven news outlets owned by large conglomerates,” he continued.

Along with many others, I’ve been writing for a long about the value of transparency versus the artificiality of the hegemony that currently governs professional journalism. In the Eau Claire case, there would be nothing wrong with the sponsorship arrangement that the station apparently sought, if proper attribution was given to such interviews.

Do we really think the audience cares that we’ve gone to the trouble to find a medical expert with nothing to gain from being on TV? Is there such a thing? And what about interviews arranged by PR people? Is there not a form of currency there?

I think the audience is a lot smarter than we think and that transparency makes amends for great offenses.

(Tip: Romenesko)

Trackbacks

  1. […] The separation of news and sales. I’m really not sure how I feel about Terry Heaton’s call for a hard look at the separation of “church and state,” although I realize it’s probably long overdue and needed. I’m just not sure transparency is the full answer. […]

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