Does a newspaper have an ethical obligation to reveal the source of its advertisers?

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September 18, 2016 by Paul Dughi

captureA controversial mailer and newspaper ads have the folks in Allentown, PA upset.

It’s led to resignations of a school’s CEO and teachers and has been condemned by educators and public officials.

The local newspaper knows who paid for it.  Do they have an obligation to reveal who’s behind it?

A mailer shows the picture of a purported student with his hands on his head next to the headline:

Teen busted by Liberty HS Officials with more than $3,000 worth of heroin and cocaine

Under the headline, the mailer asks “Why worry about this type of student at school?  Come visit Arts Academy Charter School.

You’d think the advertisement came from the Charter School.  But the School emphatically says no.

“We have the enrollment we planned on and have no need to waste money on mailers, whether they are appropriate or inappropriate. We regret someone saw fit to criticize another school in a mailer using our name.” – Dan Fennick, attorney for the Charter School via Facebook

Who paid for the ad?  That part’s a mystery right now.

What’s not a mystery has been the reaction.  As you can imagine, outrage from parents at Liberty HS, the district’s Superintendent of Schools and now the state Auditor General has joined in.

“The real issue is a failed Pennsylvania charter school law that uses the mantra of ‘school choice’ to undermine the integrity of public schools. The mission of public education is corrupted when the profit motive replaces the public good as the primary driver of our community’s schools,” Roy wrote on Sunday. “Hopefully, this outrageous mailer incident will fuel a desire on the part of our state legislators to lead the charge in Harrisburg for legislation that fixes the state’s failed charter policy.” – Bethlehem Superintendent of Schools Joseph Roy in The Morning Call

Pennsylvania’s Audit General Eugene Pasquale has called the folks behind the ad “dirtballs.”

“Unfortunately we have become accustomed to dirtball mailers and tactics like this in political campaigns. But when it spills over into our education system and one public school appears to have attacked another it becomes downright deplorable,” Pennslyvania Audit General Eugene DePasquale via Statement

Newspaper put in center of controversy

callThere’s always been a separation of church and state in newspapers.  Call it a firewall between news and sales folks.  The news department has been covering the controversy, as you’d expect.  The sales arm of the paper knows the answer to who purchased the mysterious mailer and ads in the paper.  Tronc, the parent company of The Morning Call, has refused to say who’s behind the ads.

It was covering a controversial riddle that it could, theoretically, solve. – Sara K. Satullo, lehigvalleylive.com

Some of the town’s anger has turned toward the newspaper because it won’t name who’s behind the ads.

The newspaper knows who paid for the ads, but does the newspaper have an obligation to turn over the name?

“As we’ve stated previously, our advertising department follows corporate policy that we do not provide information on advertisers.”  Renee Mutchnik, Morning Call via lehighvalleylive.com

As a private business, the newspaper has the right to keep its advertisers’ identity to itself.  Media companies routinely keep business secrets confidential, such as the price paid for ads.  In fact, most all private companies keep contractual agreements between themselves and its customers confidential.

The Poynter Institute is a non-profit group that teaches journalistic ethics.  It is often called on to comment on ethical situations in the media.

“Much of what makes businesses successful involves keeping the financials behind closed doors… While I see that there is a public good in knowing who paid for the ad, I’m loath to suggest that a private business has any obligation to publicly reveal information about their customers.” – Kelly McBride, Poynter Institute via email to lehighvalleylive.com

Read more ethical opinions here.

 

 

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