It's all about ink — be it real ink or digital bytes. As destructive as negative media attention can be, positive attention is extremely influential. Companies reap increased sales and individuals, enhanced reputations. So it's no surprise that journalists constantly confront requests from those with much to gain. Financial incentives accompany some and although this may be a short-term revenues win, long term reader trust loss is a very high risk.
A scandal is playing out now in news coverage. The issue isn't news distortion, plagiarized material or even fake promotions. Rather, it's propaganda masquerading as objective reporting. And it's undermining the work of serious journalism.
Like research analysts, journalists are trained to take a neutral position, evaluate both sides of the issue and deliver a summary report. This report is never to be directed or underwritten by any party with a vested interest.
But recent times find a growing practice of "pay-to-say," that is paying writers — many of whom present themselves as reporters delivering a balanced story — to produce material favorable to a specific cause, company or person. The revelation that the Pentagon was paying the Iraqi media to publish "good" news caused some distress among mainstream media, but the practice is not confined to military operations.
According to freelance writer Audrey Lewis, ex-HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy hired her —through a public relations firm — to write a glowing article about him during Scrushy's trial for allegedly bilking the company out of $2.7 billion. (He was acquitted.)
Investigative reporters have uncovered other instances of behind-the-scenes funding impropriety for special-interest articles. As reported in newspapers including The Philadelphia Inquirer, Jack Abramoff paid a syndicated columnist and senior fellow at the Washington D.C.-based Cato Institute — as well as a senior policy advisor at the Lewisville, Texas-based Institute for Policy Innovation — to produce stories favoring his clients.
The problem isn't that they were written. The problem is how they were distributed. Had they been featured in an op-ed section, they'd have been fine. But they weren't. The pieces were presented as credible fact-based reported stories. And when the real facts emerged, a long shadow of doubt was cast on journalism in general.
So who do you believe?
Sadly, it's becoming more difficult to see behind the curtain to know which stories are funded by special interest groups. Although major publications such as the Harvard Business Review, The New York Times and BusinessWeek have reputations of high credibility, plenty of others also adhere to high ethical standards. Many, such as this one, solely focus on the information needs of our readers.
We are grateful to the advertisers that support the editorial content in this magazine, but I would like to straighten out a misconception that periodically comes to my attention — that advertisers influence our editorial coverage.
Let's be clear: The editorial team at Healthcare Informatics guides all aspects of story generation and development, with no influence, either direct or indirect, from any vested interests. When considering a story, we focus on research and industry expertise to set the article's direction, considering only the article's potential value to our readers. In short, we strive for editorial excellence to deliver objective analysis and review. If we fall short of that goal, blame us — the advertisers have nothing to do with it.