Paying for news stories – is it ever ethical?

There’s no doubt about it; the journalism industry has to reinvent itself to remain viable in a world where the old model of advertising-supported content is unlikely to work. But where should news organizations draw the line?

In Oklahoma, stations KOTV and KWTV are both running stories within their newscasts about a state-sponsored insurance program and getting paid by the state to do it.  According to the Tulsa Word, the stations’ parent company, Griffin Communications, will be paid $3.1 million for marketing “Insure Oklahoma.” 

Griffin’s CEO says the company is not “selling the news,”  and Ron Harig, KOTV news director, says that when the stories are aired, “a disclaimer is read following the segment to inform people that Griffin is the sponsor.”

But take a look at some of the actual stories.   Do you think they are doing enough to inform viewers that this is paid content?  For example, check out the anchor intro for one piece:

Oklahoma small business owners love what they’re hearing about Insure Oklahoma when it comes to providing health insurance.  Spokesperson Angela Buckelew tells us this morning two dreams will now come true.

That hardly sounds like objective news reporting – and what exactly is Angela Buckelew a spokesperson for?  The stories themselves air without any visual disclaimer on any of the video, supers, etc., which seems to go against RTNDA guidelines for what is essentially a video news release.  In addition, the reporter on the stories used to work for one of the stations airing the segments, so she most likely looks like part of the news team for many viewers.

But, is there a way these stories could air within the newscast without raising ethical concerns?  What if the content was aired between commercial breaks, with no on-air introduction by the news anchors?  Are there other options?

It’s clear that news organizations have to find other ways to make money – and that’s going to mean that journalists will need to have more discussions than ever before about what constitutes the ethical dissemination of information.  I just don’t think this qualifies.

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