POST BY JULIA HALPERIN
Image via: NYTimes. Screengrab AFC
Here’s a sign at least one person is still reading the paper version of The New York Times: NYTPicker noticed the curious correlation between the four-page color ad in the Thursday Styles section announcing Gap’s new Premium Jeans promotion and Stuart Elliott’s 908-word column—also announcing Gap’s new Premium Jeans promotion. According to the NYTPicker, Gap’s ad probably cost over $200,000, and more spots are likely to roll in as the national campaign continues. The gaffe raises questions about how journalistic ethics are changing as print becomes more and more desperate for money—and also whether the same ethics can apply to blogs.
The NYT‘s ethics policy states that “the company, its separate business units, and members of its newsrooms and editorial pages share an interest in avoiding conflicts of interest or any appearance of conflict.” What could APPEAR more like conflict than a two-page color ad and a hefty column promoting the same thing on the same day?
The mere fact that the newspaper covers its advertisers isn’t the problem. (Just yesterday, the Dining & Wine section ran a fluffy piece about historical accuracy of the cocktails featured in AMC’s Mad Men. Meanwhile, Mad Men ads are all over the site.) The problem is that the Gap piece reads like a press release. Elliott only interviews people who directly contributed to or are affiliated with the campaign. This stands in contrast to most of NYT‘s stories, which are usually vigilant in offering alternate views on the same issue. Elliott could have easily requested a comment from a competitor (H&M, Zara) or a new media advertising expert, both of whom might have a new perspective on the campaign.
What’s more, there’s no mention of Gap’s absurdly conspicuous advertisement in an article that is about Gap’s advertising. Elliott misses a perfect opportunity to mention the ad (which would have made this whole thing look less egregious and more coincidental) when writing about the two-pronged promotional approach. From the feature:
The ads are being produced by two agencies. Laird & Partners, which developed the campaign, is working on ads that appear in places like movie theaters, magazines and outdoors. AKQA is working on the digital elements like the iPhone app and the Facebook page.
Even if Elliott was not aware of the ad, some editor certainly must have been. And without even a mention of newspaper advertising, Elliott and his editors come off looking as though they just hoped no one would notice the two-page spread in their own paper.
This shady move comes after the Times slammed the Washington Post for its own poor journalistic practice last month. The Post landed in PR hell when word got out that the paper offered to host lobbyists at an intimate dinner with reporters for a fee of $25,000. And as Gawker pointed out, the NYT seemed to revel in reporting the transgressions of its competitor, covering the story on the front page, in a column, and over and over again.
Of course, an ad snafu is a less flagrant offense, especially when the cause is most likely just bad reporting. But the two episodes do indicate a larger issue. If newspapers are being faced with a kind of financial strain they have never dealt with before, aren’t they likely to respond with unprecedented, and probably frantic, attempts at fundraising? Will the lines of journalistic ethics be redrawn?
The outrage these blunders have provoked also raises an interesting question with respect to online journalism. The rules of journalistic ethics, at least as they stand now, are well established. People know immediately when something feels fishy or unethical (as evidenced by the immediate response to these latest gaffes). But is the same true yet for blogs and other online media outlets? There’s still a code of ethics, to be sure, but how many blogs have an entire page on their website devoted to their ethics policy?
According to the NYT ethics policy for arts journalism, for example, reporters are forbidden from helping others in the arts develop their careers (except, of course, in their published writing). This includes serving on advisory boards or panels in their area of expertise. Any staff member who collects valuable art objects must submit a list of acquisitions annually, to enable management to determine if the reporter has too large a financial stake in the artist’s reputation to write about him or her impartially.
These kinds of safeguards against conflict of interest not only require more administrative infrastructure than is feasible for small blogs, but they also seem antithetical to the way many blogs currently function. Online journalism and social media are exercises in collaboration; art blogging in particular is often intimately linked to the perspective gained from connections made inside the art industry. Though the practice is diverse, many do not claim to be objective—they’re supposed to be insiders. For good or for ill, they are embedded in their coverage area in a way that newspaper reporters often are not. (One reason for this might be that blogging is a relatively new full-time profession, and most art bloggers, at least, came to it after holding other jobs in the field.) With more emphasis placed on online media every day, the web needs to come up with its own set of rules for ethical journalistic conduct, and they can’t be the same as those of print. A different medium requires different—though certainly not lower—standards.