Editor's Note : Editor's Note: We want to add a thank you to David Rotenstein. He had written to us Nov. 13 tipping us off to this conflict of interest after questioning the Decatur Patch's policy for distinguishing advertising from news.
Journalism ethics codes call for the lines between editorial and advertising to be clear. But, a Nov. 13 post on Patch.com in Decatur-Avondale Estates, Georgia seems to more than blur that line.
The post, "Don't make Energy Efficient Improvements Blindly," by Joe Thomas (see here) advises readers on the cost-saving benefits from testing one's house for "energy improvement."
Readers are informed of Georgia Power Company's Home Energy Improvement Program, which Thomas touts as "a day-long set of evaluations, diagnostics and safety testing that identifies problem areas in your home using state-of-the-art equipment. The test pinpoints exactly where your home is leaking energy - saving you time and money."
Further, Thomas writes:
"If you own a home in the City of Decatur, consider participating in the DecaturWISE [Worthwhile Investments Save Energy] Rebate Program. The City has partnered with Georgia Power to give a limited number of homeowners up to $3,200 in rebates for weatherization and energy efficient retrofits. For more information, visit the City of Decatur website."
The article reads like an advertisement, perhaps because it essentially is. Thomas is a "home performance consultant" for Renewal System Solutions, which offers the very service described in the Patch article. The article, however, is labeled as news.
Underneath Thomas' byline is a link to Renewal Systems Solutions, but quite frankly it just looks like a suggested link for readers -- it doesn't clearly indicate a) that Thomas works for Renewal System Solutions or b) that Renewal Systems Solutions offers this very service Thomas is essentially "selling" to readers.
When StinkyJournalism viewed this article Nov. 14, this article carried no disclosure that Thomas is promoting his own business's service. By Nov. 18, a note had been added to the bottom of the article disclosing that Renewal System Solutions "has participated" in the programs described in the article. The note reads:
"Renewal Sysem Solutions is a Decatur-based company that provides comprehensive home energy analysis and energy saving upgrades. It has participated in DecaturWISE and Georgia Power's Home Energy Improvement Program."
There is no time or date stamp indicating when this notice was added. Further, it still isn't clear that Thomas works for Renewal Systems Solutions.
According to Home Performance's website, it offers "a whole-house approach to identifying issues, diagnosing problems and finding cost-effective solutions."
And, the website says "Georgia Power customers are eligible for a number of rebates as a part of the HPwES program. We process and submit all of the paperwork, and Georgia Power sends a check directly to you."
According to the City of Decatur's website, Renewal System Solutions is one of three "participating contractors" residents can use to get rebates.
A quick search for the Decatur Patch indicates this is Thomas's only article for the site. We wrote to Decatur Patch's editor Ralph Ellis on Nov. 14 asking why the site published Thomas's article and why there's no disclosure. We also have written to Thomas to ask if Patch.com solicited his article or if he asked Patch.com to publish. We also asked Thomas if he is aware of journalism ethics standards concerning conflict of interest and disclosure. We'll update with any respones.
Patch.com is purportedly a series of "hyperlocal" news sources that is owned by AOL.
Hat Tip: David Rotenstein
UPDATE: 11/18/2011 1:22 PM EST: Added an editor's note at the top