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From AJR,   September 1999  issue

Punishing the Ethically Challenged   

A Chattanooga stationís sales pitch spawns calls for industry sanctions.

By Lou Prato
Lou Prato is a former radio and television news director and a broadcast journalism professor at Penn State University.     

An incident this summer in Chattanooga ignited another debate about the uneasy line between news and sales in local television and the need, perhaps, for ways to penalize stations and individuals who do something egregiously wrong.

Ethical brouhahas about news coverage of station advertisers are not new, although there does seem to be more of a clamor for punishment of transgressors. But who should do the punishing, and how far should the discipline go?

In Chattanooga, the nation's 87th largest market, representatives of Fox TV affiliate WDSI sent an unsigned fax to local businesses offering favorable news coverage for $15,000. The fax promised that three segments about the company would be produced during a specific week and would air during the morning, midday and 10 p.m. newscasts. After the fax was sent, representatives from WDSI's sales staff followed up with phone calls.

An irate Chattanooga public relations company complained in an interview with the hometown newspaper. After the Chattanooga Times and Free Press exposed the proposal, the story was picked up by the Associated Press and the broadcast and cable trade press. Later, the vice president for news for station owner Pegasus Broadcast Television would blame an overaggressive sales staff for creating an offer that "was explicitly against company policy." David Janecek, the VP for news, said the advertising plan had never been approved by the station's news director. What no one would say was how involved the station's news director had been in internal discussions of the proposal. Although Pegasus declined to single out any individual for blame, the general sales manager left the station.

The episode triggered a flurry of comments on the Internet and an editorial in Electronic Media magazine. It also sparked a renewed debate about sales encroaching into news. For decades, news and sales staffs--at newspapers and TV stations--have clashed over negative stories about advertisers. There are many examples of businesses canceling advertising after negative media attention, and stations pulling stories after threats by advertisers. Car dealerships have been particularly notorious.

What seems to be happening more frequently, news directors say, are requests by sales departments for positive stories about local businesses to help boost advertising and increase station revenue. "The only thing remarkable about this incident is its blatancy," Bruce Long, news director at KHSL in Chico-Redding, California, wrote to the Internet journalism publication Shoptalk. "News is for sale in markets everywhere, it's just more subtle: sponsorships, segments tailored for a particular client, de facto mini-infomercials."

All this is undermining the credibility of local news. Surveys for the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation late last year found that 84 percent of the public believes advertisers "often or sometimes" improperly influence the news. Naturally, most news directors disagree--only 10 percent believed advertisers often do. In an attempt to change public opinion, RTNDF is holding a series of ethics seminars with the sales issue a featured part of the discussion.

Some critics want more than talk. They want punishment, and they believe the Radio-Television News Directors Association should be leading the way. "RTNDA's code of ethics on this issue is laudable," says Peter Herford, a former CBS news executive and Columbia University journalism professor. The code stipulates that members will "evaluate information solely on its merits as news, rejecting sensationalism or misleading emphasis in any form."

Unfortunately, Herford says, the code depends on "self regulation, and that is not working." He says RTNDA's efforts "need teeth, which may be tough," because it is a voluntary group. "But what if an occasional station were barred from RTNDA membership for 'malpractice?' What if a station were suspended for six months or a year for a certain level of conduct?"

However, if RTNDA were to try to discipline members for ethical lapses, lawsuits could be filed against it that could bankrupt the organization, lawyers say. "They're not licensing members like doctors, and all they can do is remove a member from membership," says Dick Schmidt, general counsel of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. "Proving in court that someone violated a code of ethics is not easy. What is one person's ethics may not be another's."

Barbara Cochran, RTNDA president, says it would not be appropriate "or even very effective for RTNDA to certify the journalistic practices of stations." But, she says, the public has the power to help determine news content and conduct. "The most precious commodity any station or network has is its credibility with the public."