Public editors at both the Washington Post and the New York Times recently weighed in on e-commerce links within the newspaper's online stories.
The Post's public editor focused on the year-old collaboration between the newspaper and Amazon.com, where the Post gets an undisclosed percentage of sales, and the Times's public editor addressed a specific case of a reporter's blog linking to a $225 course taught by that reporter.
The graying of lines between editorial and news typically prompts journalism ethicists to question the influence or conflict of interest of the commercial benefit versus the news production.
The Washington Post's Andrew Alexander on Amazon.com Partnership
The Washington Post's Andrew Alexander wrote about the newspaper's links to Amazon products in his Oct. 24 ombudsman column. Alexander noted that the newspaper's online book reviews often link to Amazon.com where readers can buy the product.
"It's convenient for readers. But is it costly to credibility?" Alexander wondered.
"Commerce links are being inserted into reviews, columns and stories mentioning products sold on Amazon, from books to DVDs to electronic gadgets. The one-click link makes it easy for readers to buy products, and The Post gets a cut of the action on each sale (it won't reveal how much)," Alexander reported.
The business collaboration launched late last year, and in a press release announcing the commercial linking, the Post explained that news and editorial won't have a say in posting the links - rather links are "automatically embedded by a non-editorial team."
Some Post journalists are concerned about the linking, Alexander reported, because it blurs the line between news and commerce.
But, the Post created "safeguarding policies," according to Alexander which requires that:
- Links are used "in a content-neutral manner" -- the Post will link even if the reviewer panned the product.
- No links in obituaries or crime reporting
- Pick the cheapest version available to link to, if possible
- Only name products "when there is a meaningful editorial reason"
Alexander cited the opinions of journalism ethicists Stephen J.A. Ward and Kelly McBride on the matter.
Ward is quoted as saying he's not a fan of linking in the stories because it can suggest that Post reporters "are participating in commercial enterprises."
McBride likewise is quoted as saying the linking questions editorial independence."But just because the rest of society doesn't value journalistic credibility doesn't mean we shouldn't value it," said McBride.
However, Alexander noted that no readers have complained to him about the Amazon links.
The New York Times' Arthur Brisbane on Linking to Times' Online Courses
The New York Times' public editor Arthur Brisbane similarly wrote about the troubles of linking in to commercial ventures which benefit the newspaper.
Brisbane addressed the topic in his Oct. 16 column, noting that readers complained after clicking on a link in reporter Jacques Steinberg's blog for "The Choice." Steinberg's blog linked to an online New York Times course taught by Steinberg.
The course, "Introduction to Course Admissions," costs $225. Readers questioned the link as an infomercial, a conflict of interest.
Steinberg's course is part of The New York Times Knowledge Network, Brisbane explained. The network includes 12 courses "produced entirely by The Times newsroom" on "journalism and writing, science of health, and parenting teens."
As Brisbane sees it, readers were concerned "at least in part from the disconcerting surprise that a link in an article leads not to another Web site offering information, or to another Times page, as other links on the Times site do, but to an immediate opportunity to buy something from The Times."
Ethicist Ward was again quoted in this public editor column saying that the public sees a graying line between commerce and news, as readers see a “public perception that something funny is going on; that money is getting in the way of objective judgments and what is newsworthy."
Brisbane reported that Steinberg is paid a flat fee for his course and that Steinberg didn't see the course as having "hijacked his editorial duties."
See Steinberg's course here. See "The Choice" blog, which bills itself as "demystifying college admissions and aid," here.
Brisbane also posted some readers responses to his column, all three which questioned the acceptability of Steinberg linking to his own course.