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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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Thanks for the chance to comment. The intro included two passages I'd like to address:

"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."

Both assertions are possibly true for NPR, but demonstrably false for many other 'news' outlets.

Listeners tuning in mid-broadcast likely won't hear the credits, and the intelligent listener's inherent skepticism of most advertising supporting media begs producers of such to stick to the highest standard:

Disclose anything that _might_ be perceived as even a potential conflict of interest. Don't expect or assume your listeners must make time to find out who is married to whom, who used to work for whom, who wants to work for whom in the future, or who owns stock in the subject company(s).

"Newspapers, for example, rarely acknowledge advertising relationships when they report on an advertiser."

Thank you for illustrating my point! Papers and other old-line media outlets have rarely acknowledged such conflicts of interest, and their credibility has all but evaporated. Their poor business practices and failures to disclose have destroyed what little halo of goodwill used to exist.

When more than 2/3 of the daily paper's space consists of ads, who is really in charge?

Who really works for whom and how subtle do the advertisers really need to be when expressing their displeasure with the editorial point of view of stories above and beside their advertising?

Maybe there's an extra buffer between the foundations and other NPOs that often sponsor NPR and the profit-making firms and individuals who founded those charitable entities, but it's just an extra layer. For example, I seriously doubt that any show sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will tend to say negative things about Microsoft, all other things being equal.

Some conflicts of interest can be eliminated, but it's probably impossible to eliminate _all_ of them. However, NPR can at least minimize the damage by doing the best job possible to disclose the potential red flags. If NPR can set and maintain that high standard, then we listeners can make up our own minds how large a grain of salt we wish to take with any given story.

Thank you again for providing this forum.

I was relieved to hear that my earlier appalled message about the Monsanto sponsorship of your program did not go unnoticed.it is extremely important that you share with your listeners/supporters who your large sponsors are, especially when you relate a strange article earlier in the show about how the "great" gains of farmers using Genetic crops! It sounded like a typical paid PR by Monsanto! If you have advertisers that are known for their greedy practices worldwide, I would like to know that. your program is educational and entertaining and I appreciate your care to our opinion.

I think you should state the underwriter information after the story. I feel it must be stated in order to let the varied listener base know for whatever reasons they might feel they need to know.

To the posters here who feel Monsanto should be dropped completely, be very careful what you wish for. I deeply disagree with Monsanto's philosophy on GMOs and pesticides and their business model in general. I am a home farmer who grows my own heirloom vegetables. But I am all for any donors who are willing to give to NPR to keep honest news coming to all of us. NPR owes it to its listeners, who also give money, to continue giving us unbiased news.

If we ask them to drop Monsanto, who is next? I do not agree with turning down legitimate company donations as long as the stories are not affected or biased in any way ever.

I loathe and distrust Monsanto as much as I love and respect Marketplace and public broadcasting. I used to work at a newspaper in both the news room and the advertising department so I understand the wall that exists between the two. However, the public didn't always see it that way and people would cancel their subscriptions because of stories and/or advertising that we did or didn't publish. There were also instances, very few, when we didn't accept advertising because it was libelous. There was also advertising that made us cringe but we accepted it because it helped pay our expenses.

I agree with those previous comments that say public radio is held to a higher standard, sort of like a politician who doesn't accept PAC money from certain groups. What makes Monsanto most despicable, however, is not only that they cause damage to our agriculture, economy and health but they also further prevent others from doing good and working toward more natural, less harmful solutions to the problems that Monsanto professes to solve. Given that you would have a real opportunity to choose advertisers whose goals and missions live up to the goals and missions that your listeners believe you aspire to, I find it difficult to believe that Monsanto would be at the top of your list of companies from whom you would solicit underwriting support.

There are those who believe that you buy stock from companies that you believe you want to support and others who buy stock from companies because they believe they can make changes that would empower the company to be better.

I think that people are not clear about what your expected outcome is. Right now, it appears that doing business with Monsanto is improving their reputation at the expense of diminishing your reputation. Is that really a good investment for your program?

Thank you for the opportunity you have extended for all us to provide our input.

Do you have any knowledge at all about Monsanto? You take their money like the evil corporation is a pro-human, pro-animal corp. How can a news org be so ignorant? Or has sponsorship blinded you too? If so, I am gone with you. I am hearing more and more about some of the sponsors you are advertising and I am getting sickened. I expect it from Fox or CNN but you too?
Really stupid on your part.

Please continue disclosing your underwriters. We, as the public, should hold all media to the same standard. Monsanto, being one of the most powerful (anti-)agricultural companies in world can not be allowed to throw their money around influencing people through public media when public media is possibly one of our last and loudest bastions of honest information. Let us keep a little faith in you.

I'm glad you asked. I am uncomfortable that Monsanto supports Marketplace. I was surprised the GMO story did not acknowledge the underwriter as you have in the past for such stories.

These situations will arise in life. While I feel Monsanto is an immoral company I do expect you to make that judgment in terms of accepting their underwriting. They are a lawfully operating company in the US - fair game as an underwriter. I also expect you to report stories impartially of your underwriters. Your acknowledging the support when reporting a connected story and underwriter is just a reminder to me that you have not forgotten this and it is why I listen.

So yes please continue with the disclosure.

Companies underwrite programs because they get a tax break for public service and don't screen the message the underwritten program sends. The contribution is the message. Other media do not have to speak about their funding in detail, so why should listener-supported media be held to a higher standard by mentioning within a story what has been said before and will be said after it?

I think it's something that should be done. It's just what's done, and so you should continue. You will probably get less angry letters and emails, so that should make it worth it.

Yes, absolutely. Pieces that relate to the sponsors of the show should carry a disclaimer so that any bias in the story, if present, is understood.

Actually, it has been bothering me for some time every introduction that mentions your primary sponsor. You can acknowledge that this sponsor is controversial, but I think this company goes beyond controversy. This company has such a strong hold on the agriculture industry, it is frightening to the amount of impact it has on the seeds available to grow, the farmers' ability to feed a nation, and our diet.

This company is impacting our health care, our climate, and our sustainability as a nation and I believe you would address those issues much sharper if they weren't paying the bills.

Yes, this has been bothering me recently...Thank you for your otherwise stellar programming.

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