Sensationalism and Consumerism, Paid For on the News

The Post pulls up a bit short on plugola

I like this Washington Post story on how product experts popping up on newscasts are frequently paid by companies to promote the products they talk about and how it’s against the law. But this story could have been even better with just a bit more reporting.

The Post’s main anecdote is a good one: Alison Rhodes, who calls herself Safety Mom and goes on news shows to pitch products, sometimes by companies who pay her.

The Post finds a Safety Mom megahit on The Today Show earlier this year:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Here’s an unscientific estimate of how that alarm-ripcord backpack will be used by kids:

Preventing kidnapping: 0 percent. Annoying teachers, parents, and elderly neighbors: 100 percent.

The Today Show’s Kathie Lee Gifford, on the other hand, says this:

That…is… brilliant.

And of course it is brilliant if you’re a Today Show producer or host trying to grab the attention of half-asleep parents wrangling kids into their high chairs at 5:37 in the morning. Urgent talk of a “false sense of security,” “child was abducted,” “major tourist place”—and the sound of a super-load alarm going off. That oughta do it. Oh, and here’s a backpack you can buy to ease your fear, presented by someone paid to do so—something we can’t be bothered to tell you.

The sensationalism, of course, is its own kind of journalistic problem. But the Post’s focus is on the hidden motives of newscast gusts. What Gifford doesn’t say here is that the Safety Mom is paid by iSafeBag, which is the first thing any producer or reporter who gave half a rip would ask someone coming on their show to talk about products. Their viewers certainly care about whether they’re getting news or guerrilla marketing.

The Post points out, so does the federal government:

Under federal law, anyone who receives something of value to endorse a product must disclose that fact to a broadcaster, which is then required to inform its audience. Failure to do so can bring a fine of up to $10,000 and a one-year prison sentence.

It’s seems like a little much to have to police this problem with the law. A much better solution would be for journalists to do their jobs and either review products themselves or vet the people they bring on to do it for them. I don’t think you can even call this Journalism 101 —it’s more basic than that. Most people automatically suspect a profit motive when someone hawks something to them. They don’t when this person’s on a news program, which makes it a valuable vehicle for manipulation.

Indeed, the Post says Safety Mom is part of a bigger phenomenon:

Rhodes is one of a small army of hosts and reviewers of fashion, toys, electronic gadgets and other consumer-oriented topics who pop up on morning news shows with advice about what to buy. The advice almost always involves products from companies that have paid the expert to slip in a few favorable words. The disclosures about this arrangement can range from minimal to nonexistent.

And this is my beef with the Post’s story: It short-arms the “plugola” phenomenon and doesn’t really support its assertion about a small army of paid promoters. I don’t doubt that it really is a widespread problem in keeping with other ethical problems that crop up too frequently in TV journalism, like running unlabeled video news releases or even pay for play coverage.

But Rhodes is the only anecdote the Post includes beyond a couple of widely reported old examples. The paper reports on a couple of companies that offer guests to news shows, but doesn’t report any examples of the programs not disclosing conflicts of interests.

That’s a shame because just one or two more examples would have made this important story a lot stronger.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,