News for profit: Money over matter

Most news is created to make money. That’s not to say that most people who are working as journalists didn’t get into the profession with the best intentions of making a difference, or that there isn’t a lot of high quality content being produced—but the simple fact is the main priority of most news networks is attracting advertisers, not informing viewers.

My views on this are shaped by my research, and my own experience working in a privately owned newsroom. On several occasions when I was producing, the sales department influenced the content in my show.

I was once told by the news director not to use viewer comments on a reporter story that was critical of a controversial theme park—one of our biggest advertisers—after a complaint was made to our sales department.

Granted the reporter made a careless decision; in his story he didn’t say the park refused to comment. But regardless, the theme park’s staff made no attempt to dispute his use of facts—they just went straight to sales demanding the story be pulled from further broadcasts—and the sales department made it happen.

Another time I was told by my boss not to send a reporter or camera to a consumer show because organizers didn’t buy any advertising—it was a show we’d covered every year since I’d started at the station. It wasn’t an earth-shattering event—but again, the sales department was calling the shots and it was infuriating.  However, having just bought a new house, I wasn’t prepared to walk over it—real life got in the way of my scruples.

You may not hear a lot of people talk about these kinds of factors when it comes to decision-making in a newsroom and I’m not particularly proud of my actions—but I can assure you, I’m not the only producer to cave in a similar situation, and the influence of the sales department is often more subtle. Before professionals question the veracity of citizen journalists’ work and new types of sources, they should consider the fact they might be living in a glass house.

In today’s news environment there is constant pressure to spit out stories and be the first to break news and boost ratings—or in other words, gain advertisers. As one journalist said, “I think the sort of obsession with scoops and beating the competition has been an enormously destructive force in journalism”; something clearly visible in mistaken reports, like Gordon Lightfoot dying.

The quest for ratings isn’t just a concern for private broadcasters. At CBC each show is given a letter grade—the higher the ratings the higher the grade, and the more resources allocated. Battle of the Blades,  for example, is an “A”.  One person working further down the food chain told me although her department’s work was editorially important they didn’t get as much support because “there’s not as many eyeballs at the end.”

Case in point, Battle of the Blades getting 5 minutes of airtime on The National. I was there the night a reporter did a full story on the reality-skating-show, which was followed by a live interview with contestant Tie Domi. What stories didn’t make it to air to make room for that cross-promotion?

Despite that questionable editorial choice, no one I spoke with at CBC shared a story of experiencing direct interference from the sales department, and some thought it didn’t happen anywhere until I shared my examples. Their ignorance supported my perception that publicly funded journalism works outside the box many private broadcasters are forced into—it’s central to ensuring stories aimed at invigorating public discourse, not attracting advertisers.

And that’s why CBC’s news content must be editorially sound—otherwise it’s an easy target for critics who claim public money doesn’t equate to more meaningful news.

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9 thoughts on “News for profit: Money over matter

  1. Pingback: News for profit: Money over matter « Redefining journalism's Blog — Debt Free Forever!

  2. Pingback: News for profit: Money over matter « Redefining journalism's Blog | U.S. Justice Talk

  3. Pingback: News for profit: Money over matter « Redefining journalism's Blog | U.S. Justice Talk

  4. Yes indeed TV networks are in the business of making a profit nothing inherently wrong with that. But often there is, or used to be, a line in the sand between the sales department and the news department. I would have to say that line is getting a little fuzzy, a little less clear than it used to be. I’m not sure why.

    And I hate to bring it up, but I can’t help myself, it looks like the Charlie Sheen wall-to-wall coverage is a symptom of news for profit. Is it really a story that Mr. Sheen seems to be self-destructing? or is the coverage just a way of getting viewers to watch the news? Kind of like watching a car wreck, you know you shouldn’t watch, but you can’t turn away. The inherent conflict in Man against Himself has always been considered a news story, so is this any different? Alas, I have more questions than answers.

    • Thanks for the comment Karen, I’d say the reason the line is fuzzier is that budgets are more and more squeezed, journalists are busier than ever and there’s a fear to push back. As for Charlie Sheen–I’d define that as man against his selves and think we should perhaps be talking about the ethics of giving someone this type of coverage and airtime who is clearly ill.

  5. Mark Crispin Miller has been brilliant on this topic too, as you likely know, Nic. I think the thing to emphasize is that despite the really blatant examples you provide, what happens is more often more subtle. The old ‘boardroom phoning the newsroom’ fear is not the case as often as a vague sense of ‘with us or against us’ that comes into a competitive corporate environment. Everybody knows who advertises with a given media outlet . Do we quietly self edit…leave those corporations lower down our list of entities to investigate? I think South of the border, there is an interesting legal pickle, again, something Crispin Miller has been very clear about describing…His line is basically that when the founding fathers made freedom of the press the very 1st ammendment of the American constitution, they did it because they recognized the need for robust independent scrutiny in a functioning democracy…but what they did NOT anticipate was the emergence of publicly owned corporate media outlets…and for these organizations, the fiduciary duty to shareholders actually trumps any constitutional responsibilities. So. food for thought about media evolving at a pace that outstrips lawmaking and national best interests.

    • Nicole,
      I wonder if our recent guest on The Agenda with Steve Paikin might be a contributor to your thesis? His name is Rob Steiner and he is at the Munk School of Global Affairs. His interview is on our website: tvo.org/theagenda
      His work is focused on creating a new way to do journalism. Hope this helps and also hope you are well. M

      • Thanks for the great resource Michael! Here’s a direct link for anyone else who’a interested–this is especially interesting for those of us who teach as it speaks directly to what we are teaching in journalism school, and where journalism is going: Steiner says it’s freelance and specialist reporting. Maybe I should send him a link to my working in freedom or fear blog 🙂

        http://bit.ly/hm4NMS

    • Thanks for the comment David. I agree completely with you and Crispin Miller; Media has evolved outside of the laws designed to protect independent scrutiny–again that’s why I think publicly funded television is so important. It may not be perfect, but it’s the best chance at having stories covered that aren’t about Charlie Sheen, in a fulsome manner compared to the traditional minute-30 we see in reporter packages.

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