Newsweek, API, and Ethics

What guidelines should govern advertiser-sponsored events?

Last week, news reports revealed that, since 2007, Newsweek has sold advertising packages to the American Petroleum Industry—the oil and gas industry’s largest trade group—“that included the right to co-host forums on energy issues, including two where members of Congress sat side-by-side on panels with the association’s president.”

Newsweek and API have teamed on four forums so far and are planning another – ‘climate and Energy Policy: Moving?’ – for Dec. 1, when the Senate could be holding a floor debate on climate legislation,” Greenwire reported. The story noted that “journalism and ethics experts decried the arrangement,” saying that Newsweek is selling access to politicians and creating a conflict of interest between its advertising and news departments. Newsweek defended itself by saying that API has no say in who else is invited to sit on the panel or in what questions will be asked by the moderator, usually a Newsweek editor. It also said the advertising arrangement does not influence its editorial content.

Greenwire’s article pointed out Newsweek has twenty or thirty advertisers that spend enough money to be offered the chance to co-sponsor an event, and that it is “not the only publication that holds events sponsored by the industry.” Atlantic Media, The Wall Street Journal, and Fortune are among those who accept corporate funding for conferences and other events—and it should be noted that many of these revolve around clean energy companies rather than the fossil fuels industry.

All of these events are important moneymakers for news outlets in a time of rapidly declining revenues, but the criticism of them is valid. In an ideal world, where traditional advertising and subscriptions pay the bills, they would not be necessary and would not exist. There seems to be little chance of that happening, however; in that case, we’d like to know what guidelines or best practices should govern advertiser-sponsored events. For example, Newsweek’s parent, The Washington Post Company, clearly crossed a line this summer with plans (since canceled) to host a series of closed-door “salons” where lobbyists and interest groups could pay for access to public officials and journalists.

Making events open to the public and on-the-record is good a way to enhance their integrity, but what else can and should be done? And what is unacceptable?

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.