Juan Ensalada of Denver was critical of NPR's natural gas series that ran on Morning Edition in late September; he was one of many listeners who considered it favorable to the natural gas industry. (See my piece evaluating the series.)
But when he looked at a related story on NPR's web site, he was downright suspicious.
What bothered him was a banner ad for America's Natural Gas Alliance placed at the top of the page, next to stories in the natural gas series.
ANGA bills itself as an education organization representing leading independent natural gas companies. It is currently involved in a major new advertising campaign in big-city newspapers and on TV and radio, including NPR, promoting natural gas as a "clean" energy source.
"Clearly this looks like a MAJOR conflict of interest — that NPR took underwriting money to influence journalism," wrote Ensalada. Many others questioned the ad placement.
Ensalada is correct about one thing: It didn't look good to have the sponsorship banner on the same web page as the series.
But despite his skepticism about NPR's motives, there was no "pay for play" here.
ANGA began a sponsorship campaign on NPR's website on Sept. 17 to run through Dec. 31. It is online only, meaning that no sponsorship messages appear on NPR-produced radio programs. (If you hear ANGA ads on air, it may be because a non-NPR program or a local public radio station is running the spots independently of NPR.)
The sponsorship message was vetted to make sure it fit NPR's standards for corporate underwriting and was approved, according to John King, in corporate underwriting.
"The sponsorship deal was negotiated months before the series ran and was scheduled to appear periodically on our business pages," said Kinsey Wilson, Senior Vice President and General Manager, NPR Digital Media. "There is no relationship between editorial decision-making and corporate underwriting."
Tom Gjelten and Peter Overby, the two reporters on the natural gas series, said they were unaware of the ANGA sponsorship while they were reporting their stories. "I'd also say it's no surprise they would do this," Overby said. "Corporations and interest groups often use NPR funding credits to buff up their images."
It also may be worth pointing out that sponsors are not able to sponsor individual stories. They just sponsor topic areas or program areas, or in special cases, provide support for long-term projects like NPR's Planet Money or StoryCorps.
NPR, and other legitimate news organizations, insist there is a "firewall" between the editorial and business/advertising departments.
This is how a firewall works: NPR's corporate underwriting team sells, in this case, banners that appear on the web in broad topic areas, and guarantees the purchaser a set number of "impressions," i.e. someone viewing a web page will see the banner. (If a banner is sold for NPR's homepage, NPR can guarantee about 750,000 page views per day. The number is much smaller for most individual pages inside the NPR web site.)
People in NPR's news department are not involved, directly or indirectly, in the sale or placement of messages on the radio or the web site.
"Our ad server [a computer] makes the second-to-second decisions on what banner to show on a given page view," said Bryan Moffett, Director of Digital Sponsorship Operations. "It's more complex than a simple rotation. But it's fair to say ads rotate. It's also important to remember that at any given time, hundreds of people are on our site looking at content. So what you see may not be what others see, as the ad server is making these decisions every second."
After I saw the ad periodically on the natural gas series site, I brought it to NPR's attention. Even if there were no direct cause and effect (i.e. ANGA bought ads and NPR decided to do the series, which is not the case), a viewer could reasonably perceive a conflict-of-interest.
The ad was hand-pulled from appearing on the series as of Oct. 8 at 11:35 a.m.
"Editors don't have the visibility into which ads are running where and when," explained Wilson. "And sponsorship doesn't know in advance that stories are going to be published. That's part of the church/state separation [the firewall]. Add to that the volume of ads and stories coursing through the site and I think you can appreciate how difficult it is to catch such a juxtaposition in advance."
In some cases, such as during elections, Wilson said, NPR can intentionally position or exclude sponsor messages. NPR would not, for instance, let a political campaign try to buy all the possible banner ads on the politics pages.
"But it's not practical in every instance" to monitor the ads and content, said Wilson. "So, in the spirit of the web, we also rely on the audience to help us identify these issues, as they did in this case."
This incident demonstrates two lessons for NPR. One is that, in this era of polarized politics and public skepticism about the news media, some in NPR's audience are quick to perceive, and accuse NPR of, a conflict of interest.
A second lesson, related to the first, is that NPR needs to work harder to protect its reputation by avoiding actions that could reinforce perceptions that access to its news gathering is for sale.
In this case, NPR had every right to accept underwriting ads from the natural gas industry, as long as they met the criteria. It is a fact of life that underwriting is now a important source of income for NPR.
However, NPR could have — and should have — made sure beforehand that underwriting ads for the natural gas industry did not appear on the same web pages as those carrying stories in the natural gas series.