There is very little difference between ethical journalists and public-relations professionals today. Both professions must be more aggressive about policing and calling out unethical practices, whether the egregious “pay for play” phenomenon of buying news interviews on local television or bankrolling front groups.
Gayle Lynn Falkenthal
San Diego, CA
The central fact—that the ratio of PR flacks to reporter hacks has gone from near-parity to an almost four-to-one advantage for the flacks—cannot be spun.
Journalists may not be entirely independent, and we’re not all very good, but one thing about us: we don’t take pay from the people we write about. Even though doing so would improve our incomes to PR-practitioner levels.
Also, we don’t make excuses for people like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass. Unlike PR folks who, once in a while “burn” the public via dissemination of a whopper, journalists who do that really are finished. They go to law school or become consultants or life coaches.
Edward Ericson Jr.
Pay and Play
John Cook in his essay “Pay Up: Sources have their agendas. Why can’t money be one?” (CJR, May/June 2011) makes an excellent point, as others of us have argued, that the customary rationale for not paying the sources—that the payments will taint the information they provide—is dubious. Paid sources are just as likely to be eager to make sure their information is solid and truthful—in hopes of getting rehired—as they are to tailor it in fraudulent ways to keep the customer satisfied.
Moreover, if the ban is a way to ward off the corrupting effects of payment, it gives a pass to the ways that many sources are already paid in currency other than money—through prominence, enhanced prestige, and the like—and essentially denies the many less-favored sources who aren’t in a position to monetize those benefits the only reward that would actually work for them: hard cash.
Still, that doesn’t mean routinely paying sources would, on balance, be a good practice. After all, if journalism’s objective is to maximize the flow of accurate, publicly significant information, it’s hard to argue that making every source interview a sales negotiation would be a lubricant. It would certainly make the work of reporters harder, introduce a whole new legal morass of micro-contract disputes, and would undoubtedly drive up costs. Plus, it’s not even clear that it would encourage sources to come forward. Some might well be deterred by the prospect of being branded as money-grubbing informers.
Knight Chair in Journalism Ethics
Washington and Lee University
In Lawrence Pintak’s “English Lesson” (CJR, May/June 2011), about Al Jazeera English (AJE), we reported that “only viewers in Washington, DC; Toledo, Ohio; and Burlington, Vermont—the three locations where a service provider offers AJE—could watch the channel’s Tunisia and Egypt coverage on TV.” We should have noted that viewers in other markets could watch AJE programming at times on channels like Mhz Worldview, which rebroadcasts international news programs from AJE and others, but that only viewers in those three locations had access to the entire channel as part of their cable package.
In Michael Shapiro’s essay “The Paper Chase” (CJR, May/June 2011), we printed: “Their Nubian goat was about to have a calf.” The sentence should have read that the Nubian goat was about to have a kid. No kidding.
In John Sullivan’s “True Enough: The second age of PR,” the author picked up a set of decimal-place errors from the book, The Death and Life of American Journalism (which the book will correct in the next edition). The piece should have said, “In 1980, there were about 45 PR workers per one hundred thousand population compared with 36 journalists. In 2008, there were 90 PR people compared to 25 journalists”—instead of the figures .45 and .36 for 1980 and .90 and .25 for 2008. The ratios remain the same. We regret the error.