This Post Brought to You by Transparency

One of the biggest journalism buzzwords in recent years has been transparency.  The term so often used by journalists (as in, Congress ought to be more transparent about earmarks), should be used more about journalists.

Two steps-in-the-right-direction came this week, but both demonstrate the industry has not embraced the issue with the same fervor as it has Wikileaks blame and ski lift ‘tragedies’.  One was a Walmart-sponsored piece on the Today Show that is not clearly labeled as such, and the second is an apparent third case of plagiarism for upstart Patch.

Screen capture from msnbc.com, with no visual or audio representation that the piece was sponsored by Walmart.

Today Spreads Walmart’s Cheer

The first was delivered just before Christmas, as Matt Lauer began a segment on military moms-to-be in much the same fashion as you might expect:  More than a hundred excitedly screaming pregnant military moms crowded in a liveshot and after the heart-tugging taped story, Lauer was interviewing three military moms-to-be and a husband just back from Afghanistan, complete with child born during deployment held in the man’s arms.

And this is where things took a turn.  I was fully expecting the “big surprise” to be a husband-and-pregnant-wife reunion on national morning television, one of those moments that touches your heart.

Instead, you could see someone I presume to be a network field producer waving her arms to incite the crowd to cheers, as Lauer delivers this line:

“What we would like to do is throw you all a surprise baby shower, so without further ado, we have some great people from Walmart and they’re going to do the honors.”

In roll the infantry division from a local Walmart store wearing their combat powder blue logo-emblazoned shirts and pushing carts and baby strollers.  As Lauer explains, the carts are packed with diapers, onesies, pacifiers, and a digital camera for each family.

How exciting!  And honestly, how worthwhile for the many families with loved ones serving in the armed forces.  But what a disservice to anyone tuning in expecting to see an unbiased story about how military moms-to-be are coping.

Instead, Lauer goes on to interview a Walmart store manager, praise the company, and toss to commercial break.  It isn’t until the bump shot, a live picture of the surprise baby shower seconds before the commercials run, when a small black bar comes across the screen that reads something like “Promotional consideration provided by Walmart.”  (And no audio message for the visually impaired or the multitasking morning listeners of the program who have quickly moved on to other chores.)

The video as it appeared on the front of Todayshow.com, without any mention of the sponsor.

A sponsored segment does not come as a big surprise, but a small line of text after the segment concludes is not a transparent method of identifying an advertiser paying to be on a top-ranked news program.  That’s the journalistic equivalence of a critical clause in the fine print in a new car contract.  Why bother doing it at all, unless you inform viewers during the segment?

Worse, in my digital mind, is that when the story appeared on Todayshow.com and msnbc.com, the message about promotional consideration had been sliced off so the story appeared just like any other.  I would urge them to think twice — not about the sponsorship, necessarily, but about the show’s transparency.

Watch the video here.

[Disclosure: For more than six years, I worked at another division of NBC Universal as a reporter and then managing editor.]

Patch’s Third Strike at Plagiarism

This week, the editor of Palo Alto Patch (one of Aol’s 600 hyperlocal sites sprouting up across the country in 2010) offered this apology after a writer for the site “lifted information” from another news source without proper credit, noting, in part:

“The writer has been told that taking work of other writers or news organizations without attribution is absolutely not acceptable.”

This should have been covered during Day One at Patch training.  And although freelance writers are provided with a plagiarism guide (presumably a how-not-to plagiarize guide), something doesn’t add up.  This is the third apparent incident at Patch in just a few months.  Clearly the organization is not adequately communicating the importance of this policy.

Even the apology falls short in its attempts at transparency.  What was the story? Who is the writer, and is he or she still working for Patch?  Did you review all of their previous work on the site? All of these questions remain unanswered.

In academic settings, students know that plagiarism is often grounds for serious disciplinary action because the integrity of an institution is paramount to its success. Other news organizations make similar policies clear for the same reasons, too:

  • “Plagiarism is an unforgivable offense. NPR journalists do not take other peoples’ work and present it as our own.” (NPR ethics code)
  • “Plagiarism is unforgivable and will be cause for termination.” (The Roanoke Times news standards and policies)
  • “Plagiarism is prohibited and is illegal if the material is copyright protected.” (The Fairfield University Mirror ethics code)

Were any of these news organizations accused of plagiarism three times in a matter of months, heads would roll.  I’m not suggesting the firing of this writer or reporter, but as Patch strives to become a massive journalism organization, it must behave like one.

On the other hand, kudos to Patch for an enlightening bit of transparency, encouraging “editors to reveal their beliefs to the extent they feel comfortable” on the editor’s biography page.  (More on that in a future post.)

[More disclosure: I am currently editorial director of an organization that works with news sites in the hyperlocal space.]


Just Be Clear

To me, incidents like these make apparent that the warp-speed with which we do business now could ultimately be our demise.  We need to have an unequivocally clear conversation with our readers, viewers and listeners.  We need vocal men and women in the role of ombudsmen who will highlight incidents like these, not so much for the public, but for other journalists who may need a refresher in the do’s and don’ts.

As I get off my high-horse now, I urge you to read this column by NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard.  She calls corrections “basic journalistic hygiene,” and I couldn’t agree more.  We are in the middle of forming the next great news medium.  Since it can be as transparent as possible, let us use that to our advantage.  It gives journalism a greater argument for demanding transparency of those we seek to hold accountable.

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