The media — and our ethics — have been taking a bit of a beating recently. Donald Trump said just this week, "I'm not running against crooked Hillary. I'm running against the crooked media."
Crooked because they hold him accountable for the comments he makes, and fact-check them? In its Code of Ethics, The Society of Professional Journalists says, "The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public." Part of serving the public is maintaining independence in the pursuit and coverage of news.
But thanks to diminishing revenue and a broken business model, some journalistic outfits have been forced to get creative to find new ways to stay profitable — or even to stay in business. And something I witnessed recently on The Gazette's Facebook feed made me question how far traditional journalism will go to find new sources of revenue.
Of course, we expect the daily newspaper to cover a local appearance by a presidential candidate, as The Gazette did when Trump came to town July 29. What was problematic was a Facebook Live video posted by anchor/reporter Eric Singer. "This election coverage brought to you by the El Paso County Republican Party," the post read, and it went on to provide a link where you could get tickets to a fundraising dinner.
In the short video, viewed by about 4,000 people, the same words came from Singer's mouth.
Sponsorship in media isn't new. Local TV news operations regularly allow for sponsorship of weather and sports (areas where sponsorship is not likely to sway our opinions about the latest heat wave or alter the outcome of the Broncos game). And in the pages of many publications, advertising masquerades as editorial content, usually labeled as "advertorial."
SPJ says journalists must "distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two. Prominently label sponsored content." Sure, that Gazette video was labeled as sponsored, but allowing sponsorship of political coverage by a political party is just not OK.
Bob Steele, the nationally respected Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at The Poynter Institute, says given the state of the business, he's not surprised it's come to newspapers tapping into this funding pool.
"But even though I'm not surprised, I'm disheartened," he says. When I spoke with Steele, who now lives with his wife in the foothills outside Denver, he also said he's not familiar with another situation like this one.
Steele says, "To cover political candidates with vigor and rigor and independence is essential. If you have political parties sponsoring news coverage, that's a red flag."
In this situation, no matter how much a news organization argues its coverage remains unbiased, Steele says it's the reality — not just the perception — that the media outlet's independence is compromised.
If Hillary Clinton, Gary Johnson or Jill Stein came to town, would there be coverage if the local Democratic, Libertarian or Green parties didn't pony up some cash? Seems preposterous, but given the sponsorship of coverage for Trump's visit, it's a fair question.
(I emailed Gazette publisher Dan Steever asking about this sponsorship and what it means. He had not responded by press time.)
This was just a Facebook Live feed. It wasn't sponsored coverage in the pages of the daily paper, so maybe it's not that bad? But when 62 percent of U.S. adults report getting news on social media (according to a May survey by the Pew Research Center), it's a problem. The same ethical standards that pertain to the printed page should be extended to all areas of the newspaper's brand. That includes social media.
Poynter's Steele says that the digital world poses new challenges to traditional media, and much of what exists in social media are pieces of information that don't carry the standards of traditional media. "News organizations using social media in ways that compromise their values is a road to destruction," he says.
In this world of "reader beware," Steele says it's important for citizens to consume more journalism.
"Read, listen and watch widely," he says, advising finding multiple sources and being as discriminating as possible as you consider the quality and the ethics of those sources. "Do not give up on news media in this country — it's one of the cornerstones of democracy."