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 cvillenews.com in 2001: “Like Jim Hanchett will be at the WVIR Christmas party. I don’t think so.” He may be invited yet.