Paid propaganda? PART 2: Sun/Province’s disturbing “message”
[Editor’s note: Part one of Mr. Oberfeld’s column should be right below this one. I decided to print the two simultaneously as this is an important issue and one that will only become more and more urgent as corporate newspapers struggle to survive in an age of declining revenues]
It’s no secret that, to any branch of the news media, the availability of information is critical: whether voluntarily provided; deliberately revealed; earnestly sought out or inadvertently discovered.
But what is not so well known is how dependent today’s media are on free information: interviews granted or questions responded to by ordinary people … even tragedy victims in the midst of terrible personal anguish, business leaders, government officials or spokespeople for both public and private organizations.–all in the interest of supporting media reporting and discussions of issues as an integral part of our democratic system.
And sometimes these sources will go to a great deal of trouble, drawing up/reprinting documents, data, preparing reports or opening their office and factory doors to reporters, camera crews, taking up time and resources, often for no real personal or corporate benefit except to support the public’s right to know what’s going on in our “free” society.
You may even be surprised to know that, apart from the actual radio hosts, television broadcasters or print reporters themselves, almost none of the experts you hear, see, read being quoted/interviewed are paid for their time, professional expertise, direct experience or unique perspective or compensated in any way.
I have been interviewed on issues, from politics to the media, many times since my retirement (even spent full hours on various radio shows, appeared on panels etc. etc) without asking for any fee or compensation. I do it, and so does almost everyone else that the media depends on for information and comments, because I believe in supporting democratic media and the public’s right to information.
Which brings me to the Vancouver Sun and The Province, the two major city newspapers, neither of which could properly function without the “free” flow of information and the willingness of people to talk to them, answer questions and provide information.
Readers of my previous blog will no doubt be concerned about the questions raised last weekend when the two papers each published the same two stories about the growing popularity of PVR technology for home television right next to the same ads from Telus promoting its PVR services.
There was nothing in either paper to indicate the stories and accompanying ads were part of an “Advertorial” or “Special Advertising Feature”: just two stories, looking like news reports that just happened to be published next to Telus ads.
And what really surprised and concerned me is that both full-page treatments ran in the “A” section of the papers, which I have always believed was kind of sacred as the “real” news part of the newspapers. Maybe they were just ordinary stories that just happened to be placed next to a Telus ad on the same subject. But maybe not.
So I sent e-mails to Province Editor-in-Chief Wayne Moriarty and Sun Editor-in-Chief Patricia Graham:
“Is it just a coincidence that these two pieces appear on that page beside the Telus ad?,” I inquired.
“Are the stories part of a package deal of some kind with Telus? If so, do you consider it ethical for a newspaper to publish these kinds of promotional stories right beside ads without advising the reader in some way of a link between them all?”
Now you might think that any newspaper executive would rush to defend the integrity of his or her newspaper, especially when informed a blog was in preparation that would raise the issue of the two stories/ad?
And you might also expect, in light of the dependence that the news media itself, as outlined above, relies on people and organizations responding to ITS requests for information and interviews, that they would similarly respond to questions directed at them.
You would be wrong.
There was no response from Graham or Moriarty to either of my e-mails. So, out of professional courtesy (even though I’m retired) and a determination to find out the truth, I phoned both. Neither answered the call directly, so I left messages on their personal voicemail.
Graham’s assistant phoned back and said the Sun’s Editor-in-Chief had received my email and phone call BUT WOULD BE TOO BUSY ALL WEEK TO RESPOND. And apparently, no one else at The Sun could be designated to explain?
How would The Sun fare if people they approached for interviews responded in the same way? Didn’t answer their e-mail requests for information? Had no time to take even a phone call? What would happen to the paper’s stories? What would be the implications for journalism if that kind of apprently dismissive attitude caught on with those they depend on sao heavuily for information?
The Province’s Moriarty’s response was even worse. Nothing! No response to either my e-mail or to my message on his voice mail. Perhaps he was out of town? Surely the Editor-in-Chief of a major newspaper would be well organized enough, in such cases, to have someone checking his e-mails and voicemails to ensure his newspaper doesn’t miss the BIG story? LOL!
Now, let’s be very clear. There is no requirement that they answer any questions, from me or any other reader. That is their right and I would defend it completely.
But I must say, from my point of view, it looks arrogant and like they aren’t concerned about the questions I (or tens of thousands readers of this blog) might have about the integrity of stories in their newspapers.
Without their response about this particular case or any reassurance about the integrity of their content, how are we to know whether what we are reading in The Sun or The Province is real news or paid-for propaganda?
This Saturday’s Sun carried a “Tech Toy” item “New Canon targets video buffs”. Did reporter Gillian Shaw come up with this story on her own, or is it a bought plant?
There was also a reprint from the North Shore News, ”North Vancouver Boyz video strikes YouTube gold”. Did the North Shore News or the music group pay to have this put before Sun readers? This kind of stuff really scares me: readers of my generation will remember the media payola scandals of the sixties to promote music groups.
The Province Sunday ran a piece “A head start on a rewarding career.” Was that a real feature or bought space?
And if private companies can buy advertorials that are not identified as advertorials, can governments be far behind? Or foreign countries with PR image problems? Just imagine the possibilites.
The Sun and The Province owe it to their own readers and the readers of this blog to come clean.
They MUST clearly let readers know what is paid for copy. And if anyone, whether blogger, or subscriber (which I am) or casual reader inquires about whether a particular story was real or a paid for promotional piece, they should provide answers.
It’s the least we should be able to expect from an industry that depends so much on responses from others to produce their product.
In the meantime, until this uncertainty is cleared up, I urge you to send a link to this blog www.harveyoberfeld.ca to everyone on your mailing list, so they can be aware questions have been raised: that what they are reading as in The Sun and The Province as news articles just might not be!
I still await their assurances about those PVR/ad pieces and will be happy to publish them. And I will even answer any questions they might have about the content on my blog!
This column originally appeared in Mr. Oberfeld’s blog, Keeping it Real. Reprinted with his kind permission.