Comment: The relationship between news and underwriters

Marketplace's policy, when an underwriter is the subject of a news report, has been to acknowledge that relationship on-air. We are reconsidering the policy, for this reason: There is no communication between Marketplace's underwriters and Marketplace's newsroom. There is no opportunity for an underwriter to try to influence news reports; a story involving an underwriter is reported in the same way as any other story. And credits throughout each show already identify Marketplace's sponsors that day.

Not everyone agrees. This week several listeners complained when Marketplace aired a report on genetically-modified crops and did not include an acknowledgment that Monsanto, the leading manufacturer of genetically-modified seeds, is an underwriter (A credit identifying Monsanto as a sponsor that day did air during the show).

So we'd like to ask you, as people who rely on Marketplace for news about business and the economy: What do you think? Are these acknowledgments useful? Are they necessary? Or do listeners understand, and are they comfortable with, the "wall" that stands between the business side of news organizations and their newsrooms? Newspapers, for example, rarely acknowledge advertising relationships when they report on an advertiser.

Marketplace, like most public radio programs, has many underwriters. So this question starts with a report involving Monsanto, but applies to a wide range of businesses. Thanks for your thoughts on this.

Update: If the subject of a report is an underwriter of our show, we will mention it on air and on our website.

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Public Radio was formed as an alternative to for-profit media sources, and provides a different (and in my opinion, better) service than for-profit media. I believe Public Radio and its shows should be as independent and unconcerned as possible, and I therefore hold them to a higher standard than newspapers and television news. Personally, I believe that public radio and its shows should make do without any "underwriting" (advertising). I would be happier with less on my Public Radio station if it came with no advertising. If Marketplace must accept "underwriting", then I would prefer if it did not accept it from companies like Monsanto, and if Marketplace feels it must accept money from Monsanto, then it should DEFINITELY alert its listeners to that potential influence. Keep up the excellent reporting, and please keep up your standards.

What bothers me about this is that you can do an easy Google search and find ways that Monsanto has influenced news stories about it's products and practices, and not for the good of the consumer/farmer. It likes to bully news organizations who want to report on the dangers of their products (google Florida News, Monsanto, rBGH). Also, Monsanto is involved in an antitrust case against it at the moment, and it is considered one of the most unethical companies in the world right now. It makes me very uneasy as a Marketplace listener, who is VERY aware of issues with Monsanto, that it's a sponsor of Marketplace. I think it was gross negligence on Marketplaces part to not mention that Monsanto was one of their sponsors during a piece on GMO crops. Please consider removing Monsanto as a corporate sponsor. For me it casts a shadow on Marketplaces validity as a reputable news source.

One of the key messages your program sends is the importance for organizations to be transparent in their dealings with the public. It is just as important for your program to be transparent with your audience. By taking the time to mention the names of sponsors you give your stories more credibility.

A quick "Monsanto is a sponsor" is enough to remind viewers of the relationship and only costs a second of airtime. A prominent link on the web site marked "Sponsors" to a page of links to shows where they were mentioned would be great. CNBC is constantly reminding viewers that they are a subsidiary of GE when they report GE news.

The analogy to newspapers is a bit weak because we know that they are for-profit businesses that derive their revenue principally from ads. Also, this vaunted "wall" between sponsors/advertisers and editorials is silly. If PR flaks can plant stories in the NYTimes, they can probably influence stories on Marketplace too.

FYI: I couldn't find Monsanto listed anywhere as a sponsor.

APM's Marketplace has absolutely NO obligation to detail the actions or socio-polictical positions of their sponsors to the listener and customers. No company does! I think it is their ethical duty, however, acknowledge their sponsors and/or make finding information on "who are their sponsors" relatively easy to come by.

I'm sorry I'm late posting this, but to answer your post, Kai, the reason why your listeners probably expect Marketplace to disclose a potential conflict like sponsorship from Monsanto is because of the fact that they, like me, hold Marketplace in higher regard than other media outlets. I rely on Marketplace to give me a balanced and honest view of what is going on in the economy, especially in distressed times like these, and while we all need money to keep the lights on, being open about things like this simply serves to promote the trust Marketplace has created with its loyal listeners.

Please keep up the good work.

Yes, you should keep acknowledging when you report about underwriters. It can do you nothing but good. You know about the wall between the newsroom and underwriters, but your listeners don't. Acknowledgement enhances the appearance of transparency in reporting.

Actually, I can't believe you'd even have to ask this question. Let's see, you broadcast stories about financial entities and structures that may affect your listeners' views about these entities. And you may be sponsored by some of these same entities such that your existence is dependent - more or less - on that financial support. Why wouldn't you want to acknowledge the potential conflict? In fact why would you take support from corporations at all? Your sponsors have a vested interest in promoting their positions and in weakening their competitor's positions. I just don't get it how financial reporting thinks it is not responsible for reliable journalism without strings attached!

Personally, I like the disclosure. I'll never know if the writer of a bit had actual influence put upon him/her because of the sponsorship, but if you come out and say "yeah, they give us money, so what," you give the impression that you've nothing to hide, are being forthright, and demonstrative that their money isn't getting them anything aside from their 10 second bumps.

And if you forget, well, that's what nitpicky listener feedback forms are for, right? :)

As I've said before, it is imperative that you disclose conflicts of interest such as the one you have with Monsanto as it relates to the GM food story. When you say that TV and print news outlets don't disclose conflicts, that is only a half truth. They disclose when their parent companies are involved in the story. With Monsanto as an underwriter of your program, I consider that they "own" you. How does that feel?


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