Blog junkets

The AP does a story on the blog junkets to Justice Sunday II.

I’ve been surprised at the comments on this, with more apparent acceptance than I’d have predicted about the idea of taking money from someone who wants blog coverage. (Some of the comment carried the invisible satire tag, though.)

I certainly understand that bloggers don’t have the money of news organizations behind them and can’t afford to travel to cover events. And that is precisely the issue: Because bloggers don’t have money, it can create an opportunity for those who want coverage. The Family Research Council was quite clever to take advantage of that (and because of it, they’ve even managed to get AP coverage before their event).

Live8 did it, too, offering backstage passes and, as I remember, plane trips for those who covered it. And I was uncomfortable with that as well.

That quid pro quo — especially if not disclosed — can tell the public that blog coverage, if not the blogger, can be bought.

Of course, bloggers are hardly alone. The travel industry still gives junkets to travel writers. Editorial writers take junkets, according to the AP:

Yoest, who worked for now-Ambassador Robert H. Tuttle in the Ronald Reagan White House shortly after graduating from college in 1986, got the idea to invite other bloggers while traveling on an expenses-paid trip to blog the July G-8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland. Some bloggers’ travel expenses there were paid by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, as were the expenses of some editorial writers from U.S. newspapers.

And the entertainment industry was famous for giving trips to get press.

I hope we don’t find ourselves in a position where people give things to “get blog.”

The money crunch is coming to the big news organizations, too. That’s why we hear so much fretting over how they are going to support journalism as ad and circulation revenue fall. Mind you, it is the ad revenue — which also causes fretting and fear about church-and-state and conflict-of-interest and selling-of-souls — that gives news organizations the freedom to cover news. That money doesn’t come with an assignment for a story. Then again, of course, a paper that gets a lot of tech ads decides to start a tech section to sell more tech ads (until tech dries up).

Now many of us in the j-world are talking about getting charities and citizens to pay directly for reporting. That does come with an assignment. That, too, can be gamed: foundations with an agenda can “underwrite” stories from independent journalists.

Is that much different, in the end, from a foundation underwriting specific areas of coverage on NPR. You hear those promos: Health coverage underwritten by the so-and-so foundation. Without that grant, would NPR have had the same coverage? Did the foundation affect NPR’s judgement and product? Can one answer a hypothetical?

I’m not sure where this all falls out. I’ll just repeat my own wish until we all figure it out: If you take it, disclose it.

: LATER: In the comments, a snippy journalist (redundant?) demands to know the names of journalists who took the foundation’s money to go cover the G8. The implication is that this dastardly AP reporter lied about the pure ethics of editorialists and that I spread the libel. Well, in a quick search, I find this from the Cleveland Plain Dealer [full dislosure: a paper in the company I worked for until recently] by Elizabeth Sullivan, a columnist and editor on the editorial page:

The One Campaign, aimed at eradicating extreme poverty, drew a $3 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to promote its style of all-inclusive advocacy. The U.S. activists’ trip to Edinburgh was underwritten by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (which also subsidized some journalists’ expenses, including mine) and donated seats from Virgin Atlantic Airlines.