Thursday, January 13, 2005

Financially interested blogging

Zonkette is right that this raises ethical questions. But let's make sure that we don't forget that this issue confronts conventional journalism as well.

The largest MSM outlets don't do "pay for coverage". The wall between reporters and advertising is real and substantial.

Speaking from experience, however, that barrier is somewhat more permeable at the local level. As a marketing guy, I quickly learned that when I sent out press releases to local papers or TV/radio stations, I could expect a flurry of phone calls from ad salesmen. The reporters usually did not care about the release, but someone saw fit to pass along the contact information to the business side.

So the "ethical standards" are not as stringent for journalists in their training grounds (small papers, local TV and radio).

When it comes to specialty publications and industry-specific outlets, the standards are non-existent. Some are good and ethical; some are blatant in their shakedowns. I've had "editor/publishers" explicitly promise coverage in return for advertising.

The lack standards at Global Digital Widget is no reflection on Dan Rather. But it should concern readers because specialty publications are part of the food chain for the MSM. Reporters use them for background material and as a filter. The ethical problems lead to distorted information.

The elite media faces the problem directly at one remove. Reporters rely on consultants, researchers, and industry analysts for quotes and soundbites. Nearly all of these sources have financial stakes in the industry the reporters cover. This was a major problem in the market bubble of 1999-2000. Analysts promoted companies while their investment banker colleagues were angling to grab a piece of that company's IPO or bond business.

The reporters were not corrupt, but the information was still distorted. The competitive demands of the media required that they have a story and the easiest way to do that was use suspect sources.

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