Bloggers, Public Relations, and Full Disclosure

Glenn Reynolds (here and here) points to a budding controversy about bloggers running with stories based on tips from public relations firms without disclosing the source of the tip. The apparent spark for this is an impending story by Michael Barbaro, who writes anti-Wal-Mart stories for the NYT and is apparently steamed that he is getting slammed by some bloggers for glaring mistakes and undisguised bias.

John McAdams and Iowa Voice’s Brian have apparently been contacted by Barbaro about the piece and their contacts with Edelman’s Marshall Manson, who does P.R. work for Wal-Mart. Pejman Yousefzadeh also writes a confessional on the subject.

I have not been heard from Barbaro but have likewise had e-mail discussions with Manson and, unrelated to those discussions, have met Manson on two occasions at blogger events in D.C. (Unrelated to both, I have read and occasionally linked to On Tap, a very interesting conversational blog featuring Manson, Cam Edwards, Jim Geraghty, and others.)

Twice, I have written blog posts subsequent to an exchange with Manson. Originally, I was unaware of Manson’s relationship with Wal-Mart and just considered his e-mails to be among the dozens of unsolicited “news tips” that I get each week.

The first of these posts, “Wal-Mart Gets 25,000 Applications for 325 Jobs” was based on a pointer to the linked news article by Manson, although I had already seen it on Memeorandum (in retrospect, quite possibly because he had tipped someone else off and their post got picked up there) and was planning to write beforehand. I expanded that post into a TCS Daily piece, “How Wal-Mart Is Like Academia” which, in turn, created some cross-talk requiring a response post “Wal-Mart and Academia, Redux.” I was tipped to the existence of the piece to which I was responding by RedState‘s Mike Krempasky, who is a VP at Edelman.

The second post that I wrote as a result of a Manson tip was “Wal-Mart Health Plan: New York Times vs. New York Times.” The post itself contains much of the genesis of how it came about, although it does not disclose that the tip came from Manson or his relationship with Wal-Mart. Still, the piece is about the nature of news coverage and only incidentally about Wal-Mart.

It should be noted that I have written perhaps dozens of posts on Wal-Mart over the three years of OTB’s existence, virtually all of them before I had ever heard of Manson or Edelman. Since making Manson’s acquaintance electronically and later in person, I have received communications from him roughly corresponding to that detailed by McAdams. My rough estimate would be that I have received over a two dozen tips from him on various goings-on surrounding Wal-Mart and have written on only two of them. Independently, I have written other things on Wal-Mart during that time, including “Maryland Orders Wal-Mart to Provide Health Coverage.”

My position throughout has been rather consistent: Wal-Mart is an aggravating place to shop and I would not want to work there but they nonetheless make it possible for people who would otherwise be able to have access to various consumer goods to get them and they provide employment for people who would otherwise be unable to get comparable jobs.

To be clear: I have received no financial incentives from Wal-Mart, Edelman, or anyone else other than my blog advertisers. I was also paid by DCI Group, the parent company for TCS, for the piece that I wrote for them, but at the same rate that I get for any other piece. Indeed, I suspect Wal-Mart would balk at paying me for writing things like, “The job offers meager pay, no autonomy, little prestige, and is physically exhausting. In sum, it frickin’ sucks.”

The wider issue of source disclosure is getting substantially more complicated as the blogosphere matures. As Danny Glover notes, congressional staffs and others are now realizing the power of the blogosphere and doing all they can to reach out. As I result, I am invited to far more meet-and-greet opportunities on Capitol Hill than I have the ability to attend (indeed, I have thus far attended exactly zero, since taking off work for them is simply not worth it) and get numerous emails a day from various Hill staffers touting stories.

I have run with perhaps a dozen stories from these press releases, always citing the source at least generally (the RNC, Congressman so-and-so’s office, or something similar rather than the emailer’s name). Probably half the time, these backfire (as Glover suggests they will) because my take on them is that the mailer is being disengenous.

Lately, the ones from the RNC have come with a “not for attribution” statement. I have not run with any of those and, frankly, would feel no obligation to honor a non-disclosure agreement that I had no agreed to ahead of time as a condition of getting the information. (In the case of an emailed tip from a non-affiliated individual, I do honor confidentiality requests, although will generally note the story is “from an emailed tip” or some such.)

ZenScribe says it happens outside the blogosphere as well, “Ethics in journalism are routinely sacrified at the altar of PR releases due to time pressures, scarcity of resources, and sheer laxity and laziness. It is far easier to repackage (or sometimes quote verbatim) what someone else is saying, rather than doing the reporting yourself. I fess up to being guilty of this when I interned with a couple airline magazines a few years ago. They basically handed me a bunch of press releases, asked me to hit the Internet, make a couple phone calls, and then craft an article from it.”

Professional journalists routinely write copy based on press releases, wire copy, and other shortcuts. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as other investigation is being done. Doing what ZenScribe describes is probably just fine for an airline’s in-flight magazine but, obviously, would be inadequate for a serious magazine or newspaper.

Bloggers, especially as they gain prominence, likewise get an increasing amount of their story ideas from tipsters. In addition to mail from PR folks and congressional staffs, I get a lot of tips from other bloggers, think tanks, and others. Because most of those sending out mass mailings do not target their messages, preferring to shotgun things out to everyone they can think of, most of what I get does not interest me enough to write something about it. When I do write about it, I try to hat tip the source if it is another blogger out of professional courtesy.

Bloggers, like other journalists, have a complicated relationship with their sources. Maintaining access requires a certain amount of discretion but readers have a reasonable expectation of being let in on the motivations sources bring to bear. Simultaneously, we develop personal relationships with our sources and our subjects that can complicate our writing on those sources and subjects.

The bottom line is that I write about things that interest me or I think will interest you, preferably both. The opinions expressed here are actually mine. If I’m quoting from someone’s press release, I will so note. If I have anything like a financial stake in what I’m writing, I’ll mention it in the post.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. TJIT says:

    It would be nice if the same appetite for disclosure applied to stories based on press releases and lead tips from left wing advocacy groups.

    A press release or story lead from PETA, Acorn, or the Sierra club should be treated with the same amount of cynicism, disclosure and fact checking that a story tip from a business PR firm is.

    Both sources need to be carefully vetted but it seems like stories from conservative / business groups are held to a higher standard when it comes to sourcing and disclosure.