All the new digital platforms have created a proliferation of non-journalistic sources of news and information that has forever changed the media landscape. Bloggers, Posters, Reviewers, Tweeters, Video bloggers, Facebook “friends” have all become part of our content consumption menu. This has played havoc in the journalism world, which has struggled mightily with the need to differentiate itself from the new voices who come from a different place.
It’s not that bloggers without journalist training aren’t valuable, they just play by different rules. They may have significant conflicts, for example, like being paid to blog about a product or being employed by the company or industry they are blogging about. And while those are no-no’s in the world of journalism, they can also be seen by the general public as reasons the the blogger may be better informed on something going on with a product, or inside a company. Someone writing about new television sets for BestBuyOn.com clearly works for a business that has an interest in people buying more tv sets. If you are thinking about buying a TV set, and you believe a BestBuy employee may know more about TV’s than most people, that may not bother you.
So while I believe Journalists and the lack of bias will play a role in information dissemination, it’s also true that we have to allow for the fact that our readers are looking for the best information for themselves, and that may not always have to come from an unbiased journalist.
But it also means that the business of journalism must clearly differentiate itself and constantly remind the public of the difference between a journalist and someone who writes with a vested interest. It is particularly important because in the new digital world the content offered by both worlds LOOKS the same. BestBuyOn.com sure LOOKS a lot like CNET. But at least BestBuyOn.com is obviously produced by BestBuy. Joe’s TV blog may not be so obviously sponsored by Reebok if he doesn’t say it.So it is particularly hard on the industry when those lines are blurred. The latest example is the case of ESPN reporter Erin Andrews who, it turns out, is a paid endorser of Reebok shoes, among other products. While her fans may care more about whether or not she’s wearing Louboutin on the red carpet, her role as a sports sideline reporter is supposed to involve a semblance of journalistic integrity. So it was a few weeks ago when she reported from the Rose Bowl that TCU football players were slipping on the field despite their new NIKE cleats, no one thought much about the comment. A couple weeks later, it’s revealed that she is a spokesperson for Reebok, perhaps Nike’s most visible competitor.
Hmmm. The conflict is at its most dangerous point exactly when the viewer DOESN’T think much about the comment. Believing Nike cleats to be inadequate during that game is an interesting observation for fans, but takes on a a new light when you think about how many coaches and athletic directors from every school in the country — the very people who buy athletic equipment for their programs — might have been watching the Rose Bowl.
Sports journalism has never been at the top of the credibility mountain. Anchors and sports athletes or coaches who have turned into sports commentators have a history of endorsing products or brands. Still, ESPN has reserved the right to grant permission for endorsement deals on a case by case basis. And Erin Andrews, while a sideline reporter, has certainly also established herself as much as an entertainer, particularly with her stint on Dancing with the Stars.
But media companies are putting their reputations at stake in allowing this confusion. Broadcast journalists particularly are paid enough to not have to endorse products, which is a much different situation than a blogger trying to eck out a living. This is a profession, and the definition of professional conduct has included the avoidance of even the appearance of conflict. If that is to remain as one of the cannon’s of our profession, we need to police it.