Advocacy Ethics

‘Checkbook Journalism’ From a PR Pro’s Perspective

In an age of declining journalism standards, where anything goes and credibility is in serious question, it’s about time we see a network take the high road and announce it’s going back to the true practice of journalism. According to The Daily Beast, ABC News division president Ben Sherwood has decided the network will do just that and no longer pay for interviews or images, a practice called “checkbook journalism” that has become all-too-common in recent years.

ABC spokesman Jeffrey Schneider told The Daily Beast: “We can book just about anyone based on the strength of our journalism, the excellence of our anchors, correspondents, and producers, and the size or our audience. These licensing deals had become a crutch, and an unnecessary one.”

ABC’s decision came after the network had egg on its face after paying Casey Anthony $200,000 for photos in 2008, and after paying several sources of recent high-profile cases for photos and video just to get them to appear in interviews.

While ABC is making the right move ethically, will other networks and news media follow their lead? One can only hope.

So blurred have become the lines between paid and earned placement, that now when we pitch our clients, we sometimes get calls from “producers” or “editors” telling us they’re excited about our clients and want to talk to us about booking them on a morning show or writing an extensive feature article in an upcoming magazine issue. We quickly find out these “news” opportunities are pay-for-play.  The worst are the national feature shows that charge in the tens of thousands of dollars and are not clear on who their target audience is or how a client will even be presented on the show.

Not exactly the most ethically sound or comforting notion.  

The Los Angeles Times summed up this problem beautifully in its article, “Is that a morning show or an infomercial?” It wouldn’t be an issue if both sides disclosed it’s a paid opportunity. But the problem is that most of them don’t. They leave their audiences thinking the products featured in the news segment are there for the news value, not because someone paid to have them there. That’s unethical and violates principles of journalism.

If the Federal Trade Commission can compel bloggers to disclose when they are given a product or paid to write a review, then why are TV and print news media lagging?

The last straw for me came last week when my firm distributed a simple news release announcing our new account coordinator. We received a response from a representative who is now handling the “People on the Move” section at the San Diego Business Journal. We were informed that our account coordinator was perfect for the new, redesigned section and the Business Journal representative was excited to talk to us about it. It sounded suspicious already. The catch? She wanted at least $175 to feature our new account coordinator in this new section, which used to run real news about new company hires as long as the information was newsworthy. The only thing the Business Journal did right was include a disclaimer in its publication that the section is a paid advertisement.

Have newspapers, magazines and networks really gotten that desperate that now they’ve even resorted to charging for “People on the Move”-type announcements?

Does this mark the beginning of the end for “checkbook journalism” and pernicious pay-for-play schemes?

Marisa Vallbona, APR, Fellow PRSA, serves on the PRSA Board of Directors, and is president of CIM Incorporated, a Southern California-based public relations firm.


    • Renee, unfortunately it’s going to take a lot more than just NBC and CBS… but journalism would be making a giant leap if they followed ABC’s lead.

  • Wow. Making the “On the Move” section of a business publication is a real indication of the fiscal crisis facing our print media. While I’m pleased that the networks are choosing integrity, I fear that the situation overall will get worse before it gets better, especially if there are PR people (or people posing as such) who are willing to pay for the placement

  • You’re right, Nancy. It will be interesting to see how it works for that publication and others who use these tactics. I know in this market it has turned off a lot of readers.

    For this situation to turn around, it requires people to step forward and demand better of our journalists.

    Truth, accuracy, integrity, and ethics should not be in question. It’s too bad there are some who choose to practice unethically and taint the waters for the rest of the true journalists who are upstanding and frustrated by this practice that makes all of them look bad.

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