Disguising Ads as the Local News

Advertising dressed up to look like news: It's a hideous practice that violates basic journalism ethics. But here in Syracuse, N.Y., Granite-owned WTVH(TV) has succumbed to the pressures of the bottom line by selling airtime, then packaging it like news. So has Granite's ABC affiliate in Buffalo, N.Y.

Viewers see news as a special service to the community and have strongly held expectations. Newscasts are expected to be fair, accurate and, above all, honest. Newscasts are expected to serve the good of the community. WTVH understands this relationship with the community because it uses the promotion line "On Your Side." When viewers realize the station is "on the advertisers' side" and the news is not honest ,they'll stop watching. The quasi-newscast now has the same value as a paid "infomercial" program.

Having watched WTVH's new Central New York Live
at 5 p.m. for a couple of weeks now, I can testify that it's hard to tell which interviews are legitimate news and which are paid. For instance, a story on an aqua-massage machine included interviews with the store's owners and the reporter's getting a massage. There was no actual reporting and very little information; it looked like a commercial. The station claims the reporter involved isn't doing commercial interviews, but I found it difficult to tell. Was this a commercial dressed up like news, or was it just a pointless and uninteresting story?

The station saw fit to introduce commercial disclaimers only a couple of weeks ago—long after the practice began. But, tellingly, the news department produces the program.

At the Newhouse School, we've had an excellent relationship with WTVH's news department. Its staff is made up of caring professionals who want to do a good job—many are graduates of this school—and I've held my criticism of this news practice out of respect for them. On another level, it's deeply unfair of management to put good people in a potentially damaging ethical situation.

I'm not a naïve anti-business academic. Having been a station general manager, I fully understand the short-term pressure to make this month's budget; jobs and resources, and your own job, are on the line. A GM is constantly pressured by the sales department to use news personalities to do health tips sponsored by a hospital or to do a live shot from a sponsored event. News directors are asked to interview sponsors if a story is favorable. But this is a slippery slope. There is a reason that responsible broadcast groups like Hearst-Argyle and Deborah Potter's Newslab have developed clear guidelines on the relationship between news and sales.

For WTVH, the first station in Central New York, its news credibility represents an investment built over decades that is worth millions of dollars in promotion and goodwill.

Other group and station executives need to think about that before selling out the news, which can represent more than 50% of a station's profits. Here's the real bottom line: Advertising content dressed up as news is bad for the community and the station but also bad business for the owners.