It can be a thin line between press coverage and PR—at least, for some publications. The Intercept has posted a look at the way some outlets, such as The Hill and The Economist, are offering national convention promotional packages to political operators including access to their journalists and their readership for prices in five and six figures. Political bigwigs who pony up the fees can take advantage of these special packages during the Democratic and Republican National Conventions.
“There are a lot of ethical red flags here,” says Jim Naureckas, editor of the journalism watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Naureckas notes that for The Hill to refer “to the interviews as ‘earned media’ — that is, as opposed to advertising — raises the question of whether these advertorials will even be distinguished from news coverage in the fine print. If so, The Hill is operating as a straight-up PR agency.”
I’m not exactly a stranger to the idea of journalistic quid-pro-quo. As noted, I’ve received free samples of a few inexpensive products to review on TeleRead (though I’m always careful to make clear when that’s the case). Also, I’ve been able to get into otherwise expensive conventions like Gen Con and BookExpo America on special discounted press pass rates. But I try not to let that affect my coverage of the events in question.
But when I see things like this, with fairly major-name journalistic institutions effectively selling coverage, it makes me wonder whatever happened to journalistic integrity. Is it the same thing that’s happened to the integrity of the political process overall, when we see laughable political candidates like Donald Trump taken seriously in the US, and laughable political movements like Brexit taken seriously in the UK?
I expect the majority of respected journalistic institutions, like The New York Times or The Washington Post, would blanch at the idea of prostituting their news coverage—but how can readers tell the difference from the outside?