Short Stop: the Ethics of the Promotional Interview

Another year, another set of thorny ethical questions to contend with.

Specifically, at what point does journalism turn into semi-independent PR?

One of the staples of any news-source relationship, be it the politician, the special-interest group, or the business, is the interview. Interviews rarely happen unless someone is trying to sell something. That something could be a new product, a new policy direction, or an event. When trying to avoid the tacit support of a particular view or party or product or person that comes with hosting them on your website/podcast/radio show/newspaper/op-ed page, is it the number of questions one asks? The kinds of questions? Do you need to treat polarized situations differently from more apolitical ones?

This year we’ve seen an increase in the number of people approaching us to come on to our news show and talk about their events.
On the one hand, I’m gratified, because if people are approaching us to come on our show, it must mean that we’ve started making an impact in terms of visibility. We’ve become a place you actually seek out to get a message to the people out in the world.
On the other hand, I’m perturbed by the notion that we are simply a platform to promote yourself on. Intellectually, I understand that that is what many people, when representing an organization or a specific interest, view the media as. Emotionally, I end up feeling cornered by the idea that our good name can be sullied and our ethical bearing compromised by people who are looking to promote their own interests.

The ethics of the situation are particularly clear, on the untried and somewhat microscopic level of the University because my fellow students have not yet become PR masters. They are clever enough to approach us to get pre-event coverage. But they are not clever enough to phrase their desire for publicity as an opportunity for my organization to get a scoop, or break a story.

They ask me, “Can we come on to your show and give a short blurb about our event tomorrow.” To which I am forced to reply, “No, you cannot. But you may come onto my show and have my anchors ask you questions, at which point we will allow you to inform our listeners about your up-coming event.”

So I’ve taken to phrasing that last bit, where they get to talk about their own stuff in terms of, “You approached us…” carefully wording it to allow our listeners the knowledge that this is, in a sense, a contrived media moment. We didn’t get paid, we are not endorsing them, but we will allow them airtime.

So far, I haven’t said a flat-out no to anyone. I think the really thorny ethical question will appear if ever I am approached by a group whose position I believe to be lacking in some kind of merit and am forced to ask should I air these people at all?.

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