Public Editor

Readers' thoughts about The Star and KansasCity.com

When news looks like promotion

04/13/2014 5:00 PM

04/13/2014 5:52 PM

There’s an old saying some journalists are fond of: “News is what someone wants to suppress; everything else is advertising.” It’s stupid and wrong.

Of course there are plenty of stories that qualify as news that nobody would want to keep in the dark. But it’s also true that many people want reporters and photographers to tell their stories in the interest of self-promotion.

In fact, I can’t count the number of times readers have contacted me asking how they could get The Kansas City Star to “write an ad” about their business or a charitable campaign they’re undertaking.

The news or editorial division at The Star is quite distinct from the advertising department. A section in the newsroom’s code of ethics clearly outlines journalists’ responsibility in keeping that line unambiguous.

Part of its advice: “Business considerations should not influence news judgment. All editorial employees should alert their supervisors when advertisers and/or employees from the business side of the newspaper attempt to exert influence over their work.”

Yet it’s impossible to argue that some news and opinion pieces don’t end up giving free publicity to their subjects. A good example came last Friday when Kan. Rep. Lynn Jenkins tweeted approvingly about a Kids & Money column by Steve Rosen on a bill she sponsored to help families save for college.

The column was a rather straightforward explanation of the proposal, and included caveats from an expert on college savings. But it did conclude that while enactment isn’t a sure thing, “this measure deserves more than passing attention.” I understand why Jenkins and others in favor of the bill would have liked that coverage.

Readers also wonder how and why The Star chooses businesses to write about. I’ve talked about Google Fiber with the editor who coordinates coverage of the service. He is well aware that it’s ultimately just a product from a multibillion-dollar company, acting in its own self-interest, regardless of how enthusiastic some of its customers may be.

And what about arts and entertainment coverage? “I’ve always wondered, does The Star receive compensation for the front-page banners and full, front-page coverage in the FYI on Fridays for new movie releases?” asked an emailer last week. “If so, shouldn’t they be labeled as advertisements?”

The simple answer is that good reviews are not for sale at The Star. But I get the issue behind the question because there’s no doubt that the Features sections sometimes do quite a blowout for movies and concerts. And those can also be double-edged swords.

I’m sure all those involved with the recent “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” would have beamed at the beautiful illustration and 3-star review that dominated April 4’s FYI cover.

However, March 28’s review of “Noah” got similarly big play — along with 1 1/2 stars and the derisive headline, “Nooo! Ahhh!”

One emailer last week objected to letters in the Opinion section from a local car dealership’s general manager and the director of an educational nonprofit, mentioning their products and programs. They amounted to “a public service announcement spot” in the reader’s opinion.

Readers’ subjective calls on what amounts to promotion can be a useful gauge for journalists. The difference between an ad and editorial coverage should always be black and white.

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