The Cost of a Story: Who Pays?

An e-mail arrived this week from a reporter with a San Francisco newspaper, the SF Weekly. The journalist, Matt Smith, asked if I knew that an NPR freelancer had accepted services from a computer company, which he then did a story about for NPR's Morning Edition. I didn't. I looked into the matter, and here's what I found.

Paying for News?

The story was by freelancer David Pogue and it aired on Morning Edition on Sept. 12, 2005. Titled "Recovering From a Hard-Drive Disaster," Pogue reported on a company in the San Francisco Bay Area called "DriveSavers" that recovers data from computers whose hard drives have crashed.

The SF Weekly's Matt Smith claims that,

...according to a sales representative at "DriveSavers," the Marin County firm that's the subject for the segment, Mr. Pogue was "comped" [payment in lieu of cash] service on his crashed hard drive, service worth as much as $2,700, in exchange for doing a CBS Sunday Morning story on the company. Mr. Pogue cites the CBS segment in a February 2006 New York Times column.

Smith further states that Pogue admitted in his New York Times article that "had I been a paying customer and not a reviewer, I would have been charged about $2,000."

But no such admission was aired in the NPR piece with Pogue.

Smith asks:

Does Mr. Pogue's apparent transaction fall within NPR's ethical guidelines?

Does NPR have a specific policy regarding stories involved in a "comped"-service-in-exchange-for-publicity deal?

'Not Something That Could Be Returned…'

I asked Ellen McDonnell, executive producer of Morning Edition, for her response:

We asked how much the service cost. He told us thousands. He never mentioned that he didn't pay the company. Pogue had previously told us that he follows a strict policy on the products he receives for review. He returns everything he gets. This particular situation was somewhat unusual in that the "DriveSavers" service wasn't something that could be returned. Pogue would argue that this service is NOT dissimilar to the free books, CDs movies etc. As for the SF Weekly reporter's assertion that Pogue had a quid-pro-quo arrangement with "DriveSavers" for coverage on CBS, Pogue vehemently denies the charge. He says it was a review, not a comp deal and it was for the Times e-mail column, not CBS.

'Standard Practice…'

I then asked David Pogue for his perspective. He told me that accepting material for review is a standard practice in journalism when it comes to books, CDs and DVDs. Why not for computer services?

...it's absolutely standard procedure to accept free product loans and — here's the key point — free services in order to review them. It just never, ever dawned on me that this situation was any different.

We get free cellular service when reviewing a phone, free satellite or cable service when reviewing HDTV, free books of our own photos when reviewing custom-binding services, free music downloads when reviewing iTunes and its rivals, free membership in DVD-by-mail clubs for a month, and so on. (We don't get to keep hardware, though. It all gets shipped back after the review period.)

In fact, as far as I know, EVERY reviewer of services, of any kind — theater, music, restaurants, travel — gets free services for review purposes. I doubt that the NPR movie, theater, book, and music critics disclose that all the stuff they get is provided free. None of this is disclosed, although we could talk about whether it should be.

So, I do see how this problem sprouted up — it was a totally legit, fully disclosed and approved Times assignment that I spun off into an NPR segment without connecting the dots, and I'm sorry that this happened.

(You should know, however, that Mr. Smith's claim of "fix my drive, and I'll give you free radio and TV exposure" is absolutely untrue. It was originally ONLY a Times review, and that's all I ever discussed with "DriveSavers.")

Freebies: Acceptable if Cheap; Unethical if Costly?

Newsrooms are always awash with review copies of books, CDs and DVDs. These "freebies" are seen by news organizations as an acceptable form of free sample, especially when it comes to covering the arts. I tend to agree; it would be counter-productive, complicated and expensive to start paying publishers, music and film companies every time a review copy comes in the mail. It may be an ethical inconsistency, but it is one that many news organizations tolerate.

In this case, a big-ticket item, such as the cost of data recovery, should have been paid for by the news organization or at least acknowledged on air that Pogue received this service for free. Both Pogue and NPR erred in not addressing this issue — that the reviewer received a free service worth more than $2,000 from the company under review.

As a former freelancer myself, I empathize with Pogue. Most freelancers work on the media margins, pitching a story to a news organization, hoping it will be bought and expecting to be paid for their expenses on top of their fee. News organizations tend to resist having to pay those expenses, hoping the freelancer will absorb the costs. It's often a point of tension between news organizations and freelancers. Many freelancers eventually tire of the constant negotiating and end up joining a news organization as a full-time staffer.

NPR's Ethics Guidelines Say NO

NPR's own ethics guide on this is quite clear. In the section titled: "Personal Gain, Gifts, Freebies, Loaned Equipment or Merchandise, etc." it states:

1. NPR journalists may not accept compensation, including property or benefits of any kind, from people or institutions they cover. NPR journalists may accept gifts of token value (hats, mugs, t-shirts, etc.). Unsolicited items of significant value will be returned with a letter thanking the sender but stating our policy on gifts. NPR journalists pick up the check when they can (i.e., they are not wined and dined by sources); NPR journalists pay for our own travel in accordance with NPR's travel policy. There are certain instances — such as conferences and conventions — where food is provided as a convenience for the press as a whole, and in such instances it is acceptable to take advantage of this.

Although freelancers such as David Pogue are not staff journalists, there cannot be one rule for staff employees and another for freelancers. When freelancers are hired by NPR, they are expected to follow NPR's ethical guidelines.

As the NPR ethics guide further states:

The code also applies to material provided to NPR News by independent producers, member station reporters and freelance reporters. NPR News expects its outside contributors to be free of conflicts of interest on stories they cover, to be fair and accurate, and to pursue stories in a manner consistent with the ethical journalism principles stated in this code.

After questioning by the SF Weekly journalist, The New York Times has now changed its policy. In a statement to Matt Smith, the Times says:

In the case of a service like this, the Times should have paid the vendor. The Times has contacted DriveSavers to arrange payment for the service Mr. Pogue wrote about.

Will NPR do the same in the future?

According to Bill Marimow, NPR's Vice President of News, the answer is "yes."

Based on our code of ethics, it's clearly improper to review a company's computer recovery services after receiving $2,700 worth of complimentary service. Given the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, we should have either decided not to air the review or paid for the services ourselves.

No Clarification on NPR

Last week, a number of listeners asked whether NPR reported on the Associated Press video which purported to show President Bush being informed that the levees in New Orleans had been breached one day before the White House stated that he been informed about the disaster.

NPR did report this in the weekly discussion between journalists E.J. Dionne and David Brooks on All Things Considered on March 2.

The same day, the AP issued a clarification which said that the president had been warned only about water overrunning the levees rather than breaking them.

The Army Corps of Engineers considers a breach to be a hole in a levee rather than an overrun. On All Things Considered, the AP video was mentioned in passing ("more bad news for the president..."), but not in any detail and without mentioning the AP clarification.

This is a hard one to judge. Should NPR have mentioned the clarification if the specifics were not reported in the first instance? I think NPR should have done so. The implication in the first AP story is that the president was uncaring and being less than truthful when, the day after the video conference had taken place, he said that he had no knowledge that the levees had been breached.

There is a considerable amount of legitimate public animosity these days about how the administration handled Hurricane Katrina. Mentioning the video without reporting the AP correction may have inadvertently distorted what the president knew and when he knew it.

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