New York Times goes native
Madison and AT&T's Blind Spot

Pay for play

Pay for playI ran an ethics workshop yesterday for a group of PR people from around the world.

It was an interesting and fun session designed to encourage the participants to think more deeply about their ethical principles by confronting them with no-win situations and dilemmas.

They seemed to take it all with good humor. But at the end one of the participants described a situation he apparently faces all the time in his home country -- the "brown envelope" of money reporters there expect in return for running a news release.

It came up at the very end of a two-hour session, three minutes before a hard stop so everyone could get on a bus for a trip to the New York Times. So I don't think my answer was all that satisfying.

I told him I thought it was unethical to make the payment.

One of the other participants countered that he didn't consider it very different from tipping a waiter. "Reporters in some countries don't make much money," he said. "These payments are considered part of their compensation."

That may be true, as far as the bribe-taking reporters are concerned. But I stand by my answer with an explanation I didn't offer yesterday. It seems to me that paying reporters to run a news release violates a number of ethical principles.

In terms of consequences, it harms the reporter's readers. When they read a newspaper, they expect articles free from outside influences. Even on the assumption that the news release contained no misleading information, its very appearance in the paper gave it news value it might not otherwise have, which is in itself misleading.

It also violates a PR person's duty to engage in fair and open communications. Hiding the payment deprives readers of information that would almost certainly influence their opinion of the resulting story. PR people are supposed to contribute to the free flow of information. This behavior corrupts one of any democracy's key instutions -- a free press.

And on the level of virtue, it's clearly dishonest; otherwise, why the brown envelope? Tipping a waiter is done in the open for everyone, including the waiter's employer (and the IRS) to see. But the waiter's employer would likely frown on a gratuity quietly slipped to a server prior to the meal to ensure priority service. Such behavior would put other diners at a disadvantage and endanger the employer's reputation. I think that's more analagous to the situation at hand.

I admit cultural differences complicate the situation. It's true that pay-for-play is condoned in some countries. But I'll bet that even in those countries, newspaper readers would consider it corrupt and unethical. Why else would it be kept secret?

At minimum, an ethical PR person would insist on disclosure of the payment so readers can draw their own conclusion about the resulting article's newsworthiness and read it with full knowledge of its sourcing.

I don't think the practice of pay-for-play is really an accommodation to cultural differences; it's capitulation to a dishonest practice no culture should accept. What do you think?


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