Thursday, August 02, 2007

What in the Hell Happened to Journalism?

I was a journalist for many years. I got into the profession because it was a noble cause - I wanted to expose injustice and right wrongs. Along the way I figured there would be an opportunity to do some good - not only in the big ways, but in the small ways. I did my fair share of reporting from arts fairs as well as disaster areas. Both have merit.

To promote the Victorian tea I'm doing for the MHA on Aug. 11 I sent a number of press releases out to small newspapers in the area. This morning I got a call from one of them wanting me to advertise. That's not unusual and I understand it. I explained we're a non profit, running on a shoe string, trying to MAKE money and we're not spending money on advertising.

At this point, they informed me that if I didn't buy advertising they wouldn't run the press release. What? Excuse me? Did I hear correctly? Yes, yes I did.

When I studied journalism at the University of Kentucky we would have called this "unethical." That was true all three years I was getting my BA in journalism. Many years later, I still don't see any change in that designation.

Obviously, I refused. Not only on the basis of we don't have money - frankly I could have bought a little classified for a few bucks and gotten it in - and that's all it would have taken. There's another lesson here - people who can be bought are generally pretty cheap and they're not worth having - the same is true for newspapers. I will not sully myself or my organization in that way.

It would be different if it were being promoted as something other than a "news"paper - but I think most people expect their newspapers to be geared toward news. In a small town, that's probably not national news, but more local and regional news. The goal is to publish things of interest to your readership.

I'll be the first to admit that a press release about an event is not necessarily news. But, it could be made into an interesting story - when I saw the caller ID that said "Lindsborg News Record," I assumed that's what it was for. You might notice that "News" is part of the title of the newspaper. Nope, not interested in a story - just interested in getting some money out of a non-profit, which I also happen to think would be unethical for me to do. I don't think people who are members of the MHA think I'm going to spend their money on advertising - and they're right.

I am shocked. Maybe this is commonly done these days. I guess I'll know if I continue to get phone calls throughout the day. It won't change my opinion of it even if it is.

What is that quote about "Truth is not determined by majority rule..." or something like that? I fear "truth" may be something that's not of particular interest anymore in these cases. If it were they wouldn't dream of such a practice because it breaks one of the major rules of journalism - the APPEARANCE of a conflict of interest is just as damaging as a conflict of interest. Trust me, buying a story in the newspaper, which is what this is, is a conflict of interest. There's a word for buying space -  advertising. There's a word for content - editorial. N'er the twain should meet.

1 comment:

alphawoman said...

At the very least they could have put it in the "what's happening" section. I love our local free paper...