Paying the Price
By Bruce Kauffman
Bruce Kauffman teaches journalism at Clark Atlanta University.
When a nonprofit research group charged last October that some commonly used art supplies did not contain adequate warning labels, readers of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution had to pay an extra 50 cents to find out what the products were.
At the same time, the list was available free from the local office of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). The day before, the group had issued a report claiming that 18 products did not have complete federally mandated labels to warn consumers of carcinogens and chemicals that might damage organs or harm unborn children. Says PIRG spokesman Ed Johnson, "It seems a little weird to me how they're making money off our information."
The Journal and Constitution's six-inch story did not list the products beyond mentioning that they include paints, but it did tell readers how to request a faxed copy by phoning its 511 line, a 50-cent call.
The daily had launched the service, which allows readers to request such information as horoscopes, sports scores and lottery numbers, six weeks earlier after winning approval from the state Public Service Commission over 16 other applicants (the state of Georgia, Morris Newspapers and Williams Communications, which publishes business-oriented magazines, were granted lines as well). Other papers, such as the Washington Post, have also looked into operating 511 lines.
Amanda Husted, the Journal and Constitution's health and science editor, says that because there wasn't space to list all 18 items – which include acrylic paints, turpentine, artist's tape, spray enamel, markers and lacquer – it was passed on to the 511 staff. "It didn't seem important to me at the time," she says.
Editor Ron Martin says the incident was the result of "miscommunication" in the newsroom and "shouldn't have happened."