Beth Duffy’s Travel Agency Ads

A couple of folks have asked me about a commercial running on CBS-19 that appeared to raise some ethical questions. That advertisement has been described to me as featuring news anchor Beth Duffy promoting a vacation through a travel agency. (I can’t pick up any local channels, so I haven’t seen it.) There’s generally a wall between the advertising and editorial sides of a media outlet, so that’s the sort of crossover that would seem to be frowned upon. The Poynter Institute has an article on this very topic, which doesn’t establish any rules, but rather presents a series of questions for any media outlet looking to commingle editorial and advertising. Curious about what the story might be here, I asked Jim Hanchett, the news director for the station, if he could help me understand what they’re doing. Here is an edited transcript of his e-mailed responses to a few questions:

WJ: Would you describe the content of this commercial for our readers?
JH: Thank you for this opportunity to answer some questions and keep the dialogue going about issues of importance to your readers. As for the commercial, it is a 30 second spot featuring Beth as she describes a trip to Italy and tells viewers how to get more information. We see this as a chance for our viewers to get to know and travel with one of the region’s best known and most respected journalists. It is also an opportunity for us to earn the revenue that allows us to maintain one of the region’s largest news gathering teams with a focus on what matters most to Charlottesville. This is a common practice, done by scores of media outlets. In fact, the highly regarded PBS anchors Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil offered a similar cruise on the “Seven Seas”.

WJ: Does your station have a policy regarding the division between journalists and advertisers? If so, would you be willing to share that policy?
JH: Advertisers, as with anyone in the community, are encouraged to suggest story ideas but news coverage is never promised in return for an ad buy.  Members of our news team are not allowed to endorse products or candidates with very rare exceptions and this is one of them.

WJ: Do you broadcast these commercials during the newscast? If so, do you clarify that the commercial isn’t part of the content of the newscast?
JH: These announcements do air during the newscast but they in no way resemble anything we do during the newscast and they’re part of clearly defined commercial blocks so I’d be very surprised if anyone is confused.

WJ: Do you worry about the perception of a conflict of interest among your viewers, or that they’ll be confused about that line between journalism ad?
JH: I can see that potential if the circumstances were different.  In this case, Beth is not endorsing a local company or a local product that ever figures into our news coverage.  In the very remote chance this trip or the company involved becomes a news-maker, we would absolutely make clear our connection.

I’m grateful to Jim for taking the time to respond to these questions.

Some folks, incidentally, might appreciate the irony of Jim Hanchett working for an area TV outlet. He used to report on a national feed for NBC, providing coverage of big stories to feed into local news broadcasts, providing the illusion that NBC-29 had a man in Washington. So Stacey Horst would introduce a story, Jim Hanchett would report live from wherever, and then the station would cut back to the local broadcast, with Stacey Horst inevitably saying “Thanks, Jim,” despite that Jim didn’t know that NBC-29 existed. As my mother wrote in an essay for in 2001: “Like Jim Hanchett will be at the WVIR Christmas party. I don’t think so.” He may be invited yet.

20 thoughts on “Beth Duffy’s Travel Agency Ads”

  1. I have seen similar ads to what I think you are talking about in Richmond and in Greenville, SC. I am pretty certain that they were CBS affiliates also. Both times, it is a familiar person from the station talking about a trip and offering information. Presumably, you get to go on the trip with your local celeb.

  2. On a related note, I wonder why it is that NBC-29 seems to regularly require their weatherpersons to act like clowns. Whenever they have some kind of promotion, it’s always the weather people who have to appear on-air dressed up in pirate/circus/cowboy costumes. I’m embarrassed for these people who seem fair game for public humiliation, just because they’ve elected to enter a career informing that public about the weather. It’s like you give up your right to dignity, once you talk about low pressure air masses heading our way.

    Not the news guys. Not the sports guys. Just the weather guys. Can somebody ‘splain me that?

  3. A couple of things come to mind. The first is that if what she is doing is CLEARLY advertising. It is not like she is sliding this info in her newscast. The second is that she is NOT a reporter, but an announcer. And we should be used to announcers putting a push on for stuff. I hear sports announcers giving it up for this or that “sponsoring” the next fifteen minutes etc.

  4. On the one hand, this IS commercializing news. It’s kissing advertiser ass by people who should maintain a role that’s above that.

    On the other hand, the concept of local teevee news departments as a serious source of information is a joke. They vast majority of stations’ “reporting” involves reciting government press releases and sending out “news” teams to advise us to be careful driving in a quarter inch of snow.

    So, yeah, the practice sucks, but on a scale of one-to-ten things to lose sleep over, this is about a two…

  5. I also can’t lose any sleep over the trips Beth Duffy endorses, or what the TV station allows her to endorse. There was a trip last year as well, I forget where they went back then though.

    On a related note….. Waldo, sounds like you have Directv? (Dish Network has the local channels)

    If you have Directv, you can still pick up local channels most likely. Just install an antenna on your roof and purchase an A-B switch from Radio Shack. Connect your Directv to the A side of the switch, and of course connect the rooftop antenna to the B side of the switch to receive the local channels.

    You can then switch back and forth between cable and antenna. I think Radio Shack still sells the A-B switch with a remote control, you can switch without even getting up and walking across the room.

    I upgraded to all new large screen 1080p LCD TVs in my home, and I had the same problem with Directv, no local channels. It was either use the A-B switches or subscribe to Dish Network.

  6. I do have DirecTV, but only because I can’t pick up any OTA channels. There’s a mountain between me and the transmitters. (They’re on Carter’s Mountain, on the Southwest Mountains. I’m due north, straight along the spine of the Southwest Mountains, meaning that a good half-dozen peaks stand in my line of sight, plus I’m on the north slope of one of those mountains.) The best we’ve ever been able to pull in is WVIR in black-and-white, staticky enough that you can’t make out what’s on the screen or hear anything.

  7. Ahh, I see. In that case, if Dish Network can hit their satellite from your house… you can then get the local channels. If Directv can hit their satellite from your house, Dish Network should be able to as well.
    Directv has been promising local channels for years now, just a little bit longer and a few more lies them and I will be switching to Dish.

  8. Harry Landers: they likely have the weather folks handle such things because there’s an absence of potential for conflict of interest or appearance of conflict of interest for the weather persons in the primary work that they do. A news/sports reporter or announcer could do a promotion for/with someone that they have done a story about or may do a story on in the future.

    That’s my guess anyhow.

  9. Ahh, I see. In that case, if Dish Network can hit their satellite from your house… you can then get the local channels. If Directv can hit their satellite from your house, Dish Network should be able to as well.

    Unfortunately, no. Dish’s satellite, located in the southern sky, is lower on the horizon (from our latitude) than DirecTV’s. I originally signed up for Dish, but the installer said that there’s just no way, what with the mountain in the way. DirecTV’s satellite is something like 10° higher in the sky.

  10. Paul Harvey(?) “And now for the rest of the story” used to do ads for products on his show all the time. The sportscaster, Mac McDonald, also intermixed ads with his 8:00 AM sports broadcast all the time.
    Harry Landers, I have wondered the same thing. I wonder if the weatherman is used to provide him opportunity to make extra money during the day, whereas the reporters canearn extra pay by covering stories? Or maybe the station feels that no one would take the newspersons seriously if they appeared in a rabbit’s costume but everyone takes the weather seriously.

  11. Paul Harvey(?) “And now for the rest of the story” used to do ads for products on his show all the time.

    Though that remained controversial within the radio industry for the duration of his career. At least two of the remembrances of him that I saw on TV/heard on the radio devoted time to the ethical morass of his approach to advertising. He was an advertiser who happened to talk about news, rather than vice versa, or so appears to be the perception.

  12. Well, going way back, there’s footage of Edward R. Murrow doing cigarette ads in the middle of his broadcasts. (Which I think he did only under network pressure, but still…). Hopefully the standards of journalistic integrity have improved in that respect.

    I’m not saying Ms. Duffy shouldn’t do the ads. I’m just saying that they make her look like a journalistic goofball. IMHO.

  13. You need to put more pressure on Directv to get the local channels up and running then. :)

    I would love to understand all of the political roadblocks Directv is having in offering customers the local channels. But I suppose that’s another news story just waiting to hatch someday.

  14. DirecTV now offers local channels. I would have upgraded my programming package but I wanted the HD package and I couldn’t see all 5 satellites. The locals come off of a different satellite than the standard definition programming. This was back in December – worth checking into. When I had the installer come out he said I had too many trees to pick up the all the signals and canceled the whole upgrade for me at no charge. Can’t hurt to try.


  15. I am not bothered by that particular commercial because it is clear up front exactly what it is. I do have a problem with some of the local stations that try to promote a new business by talking about it as though the service it is a news item (new restaurant serving a specialty, new shipping service, new dog run, new camp ground, etc).

  16. DirecTV now offers local channels.

    According to their website, they do not offer local channels in Scottsville, Free Union, Earlysville, Crozet, Stony Point, or anywhere in 22902, which is when I stopped looking.

  17. Correct. Directv does not offer the local Charlottesville stations at all in Charlottesville or Albemarle County. If you want to watch NBC29, CBS19, or ABC16 you have to have an antenna or Dish Network.

    I still can’t understand why Dish Network has Charlotesville locals, but Directv can’t.

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