Payola is to a journalist what the Hippocratic Oath is to a Doctor. Well, maybe that is overstating it. Impeccable ethics and integrity and remaining unbiased are values preached to journalism students…. at least, they used to be. Sadly, the deeper I sink my feet into the world of Public Relations and deal with clients and reporters (as story deliverers and not as co-workers), the more I think the once well-defined journalism ethics line is a bit like the polar ice cap… eroding slowly day by day.
What is Payola?
According to the Federal Communications Commission: “Federal law, including Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules, requires that employees of broadcast stations, program producers, program suppliers and others who have accepted or agreed to receive payments, services or other valuable consideration for airing material must disclose this fact. Disclosure provides broadcasters the information they need to let their audiences know if material was paid for, and by whom.”
In English, it means that if someone gives a member of the press something free (tickets, meals, gifts, etc) it can’t be in exchange for positive press coverage and it must be disclosed to the audience. For example, when an entertainment reporter is flown to LA and treated like a king by the movie studios to interview stars and see a preview of a new movie, the understanding isn’t that he must say nice things about the film. If this law wasn’t in place, journalists could be swayed to cover or pitch news stories that would positively portray companies, people, politicians who gave them the best gifts. Make sense? It’s ultimately supposed to keep journalists unbiased.
Today, a friend of mine, who works for a nonprofit, forwarded me an email from a large market TV reporter. (Ohhh am I tempted to print it or name the reporter or give you a hint, but I won’t.) The reporter started the email with his name and station affiliation and made it clear he was a reporter. He then asked for something free in exchange for giving the nonprofit a mention in the media. In fact, the reporter had the guts to ask for the free stuff for several of his news buddies as well. Call me Pollyanna, but I was really surprised. This reporter isn’t new to news and knows better. The fact that he asked, tells me that he has done it before successfully.
My friend denied the request, telling the reporter, “We wouldn’t want you to feel biased in your comments because you had a free xxxx.”
Let’s hope the reporter learned a lesson more valuable than the free stuff he was trying to snag.