Access For Money Plan Scrapped After Uproar
Other highlights of the well thought-out SPJ Code include:
- Integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility
- Give voice to the voiceless
- Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two
- Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived
IMAGE SOURCE: American flag/ Liberty Film Festival Web site
On this Independence Day holiday comes a story about the foundation of American democracy for sale.
If injury can be caused by a lack of information, or by misinformation, American citizens might be concerned about a plan by a major news organization that nearly became reality.
The Washington Post was considering hosting dinners or “salons” that would be underwritten by lobbyists or corporations to the tune of $25,000 for a single sit-down or $250,000 for a series of 11. The payoff would be an up-front and personal with reporters in an “off the record” setting that would be “nonconfrontational”.
The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics states that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. To further those ends, journalists are supposed to “Seek truth and provide a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues”.
And the Code warns directly against the “salon” approach - “Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage”.
For a newspaper industry, reeling from lack of advertising and interest, it seemed like a win-win. Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth sent personal e-mail invitations to Tennessee Democrat, Rep Jim Cooper and Maine Republican, Sen. Olympia Snowe, asking them to be in attendance.
News of the invitations soon leaked to the online news source, Politico, which said it received a copy from a lobbyist.
The newsroom was in an uproar, though there is no word that anyone quit their job over the offense. Strictly following a code of ethics for reporters has meant that they would have to donate to charity a coffee mug they received in the line of work.
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), said in an interview: "The problem here for the Post is pretty simple, and that is, a news organization derives its credibility from the idea that it's operating in the public interest -- it's trying to gather information and make it public.
"By holding off-the-record events for money, it's hard to see how that generates any knowledge for the public. And it potentially undermines its claim that its first loyalty is to the citizen” reports the Los Angeles Times.
After the uproar, the dinners were cancelled.
Cooper accepted believing he could exchange ideas about healthcare while Snowe turned down the invitation. Both told Post reporters later they had no idea this was a revenue generator for the Post.
In the aftermath Weymouth said the newsroom never vetted the flier and that it “was prepared by the marketing department”.
The Washington Post Co. has reported a first-quarter net loss of nearly $20 million, which echoes an industry-wide trend in American newspapers. The Los Angeles Times reports it ran a front-page ad that resembled a news article for which it received criticism.
The challenge is becoming maintaining credible journalism on a budget. One solution proposed is to turn newspapers into tax-exempt nonprofits supported by large endowments so they can avoid the pitfalls of the marketplace and continue their vital role in a democracy.
Maryland Sen. Benjamin Cardin has proposed the Newspaper Revitalization Act, which allows newspapers to operate as educational nonprofits, giving them tax breaks similar to public broadcasting.
The Post will continue to search for new revenue streams. #