The New York Times Falls into the Gap

by Art Fag City on August 13, 2009 · 8 comments Events

POST BY JULIA HALPERIN
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Image via: NYTimes. Screengrab AFC

Here’s a sign at least one person is still reading the paper version of The New York Times: NYTPicker noticed the curious correlation between the four-page color ad in the Thursday Styles section announcing Gap’s new Premium Jeans promotion and Stuart Elliott’s 908-word column—also announcing Gap’s new Premium Jeans promotion. According to the NYTPicker, Gap’s ad probably cost over $200,000, and more spots are likely to roll in as the national campaign continues. The gaffe raises questions about how journalistic ethics are changing as print becomes more and more desperate for money—and also whether the same ethics can apply to blogs.

The NYT‘s ethics policy states that “the company, its separate business units, and members of its newsrooms and editorial pages share an interest in avoiding conflicts of interest or any appearance of conflict.”  What could APPEAR more like conflict than a two-page color ad and a hefty column promoting the same thing on the same day?

The mere fact that the newspaper covers its advertisers isn’t the problem. (Just yesterday, the Dining & Wine section ran a fluffy piece about historical accuracy of the cocktails featured in AMC’s Mad Men. Meanwhile, Mad Men ads are all over the site.) The problem is that the Gap piece reads like a press release. Elliott only interviews people who directly contributed to or are affiliated with the campaign. This stands in contrast to most of NYT‘s stories, which are usually vigilant in offering alternate views on the same issue. Elliott could have easily requested a comment from a competitor (H&M, Zara) or a new media advertising expert, both of whom might have a new perspective on the campaign.

What’s more, there’s no mention of Gap’s absurdly conspicuous advertisement in an article that is about Gap’s advertising. Elliott misses a perfect opportunity to mention the ad (which would have made this whole thing look less egregious and more coincidental) when writing about the two-pronged promotional approach. From the feature:

The ads are being produced by two agencies. Laird & Partners, which developed the campaign, is working on ads that appear in places like movie theaters, magazines and outdoors. AKQA is working on the digital elements like the iPhone app and the Facebook page.

Even if Elliott was not aware of the ad, some editor certainly must have been. And without even a mention of newspaper advertising, Elliott and his editors come off looking as though they just hoped no one would notice the two-page spread in their own paper.

This shady move comes after the Times slammed the Washington Post for its own poor journalistic practice last month. The Post landed in PR hell when word got out that the paper offered to host lobbyists at an intimate dinner with reporters for a fee of $25,000. And as Gawker pointed out, the NYT seemed to revel in reporting the transgressions of its competitor, covering the story on the front page, in a column, and over and over again.

Of course, an ad snafu is a less flagrant offense, especially when the cause is most likely just bad reporting. But the two episodes do indicate a larger issue. If newspapers are being faced with a kind of financial strain they have never dealt with before, aren’t they likely to respond with unprecedented, and probably frantic, attempts at fundraising? Will the lines of journalistic ethics be redrawn?

The outrage these blunders have provoked also raises an interesting question with respect to online journalism. The rules of journalistic ethics, at least as they stand now, are well established. People know immediately when something feels fishy or unethical (as evidenced by the immediate response to these latest gaffes). But is the same true yet for blogs and other online media outlets? There’s still a code of ethics, to be sure, but how many blogs have an entire page on their website devoted to their ethics policy?

According to the NYT ethics policy for arts journalism, for example, reporters are forbidden from helping others in the arts develop their careers (except, of course, in their published writing). This includes serving on advisory boards or panels in their area of expertise. Any staff member who collects valuable art objects must submit a list of acquisitions annually, to enable management to determine if the reporter has too large a financial stake in the artist’s reputation to write about him or her impartially.

These kinds of safeguards against conflict of interest not only require more administrative infrastructure than is feasible for small blogs, but they also seem antithetical to the way many blogs currently function. Online journalism and social media are exercises in collaboration; art blogging in particular is often intimately linked to the perspective gained from connections made inside the art industry. Though the practice is diverse, many do not claim to be objective—they’re supposed to be insiders. For good or for ill, they are embedded in their coverage area in a way that newspaper reporters often are not. (One reason for this might be that blogging is a relatively new full-time profession, and most art bloggers, at least, came to it after holding other jobs in the field.) With more emphasis placed on online media every day, the web needs to come up with its own set of rules for ethical journalistic conduct, and they can’t be the same as those of print. A different medium requires different—though certainly not lower—standards.

  • http://ghostfuk3r.com ghostfuk3r

    All the News That “Born to Fit” – sorry couldn’t resist.

  • http://ghostfuk3r.com ghostfuk3r

    All the News That “Born to Fit” – sorry couldn’t resist.

  • Sandra

    Thanks for an important and thoughtful post about the ethics of on-line behavior. Raises questions for me as to who and how the web will orchestrate coming up with its own set of rules for ethical journalistic conduct.

  • Sandra

    Thanks for an important and thoughtful post about the ethics of on-line behavior. Raises questions for me as to who and how the web will orchestrate coming up with its own set of rules for ethical journalistic conduct.

  • Becky Flanders

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=106347439nnGreat Fresh Air episode that that touches on this issue entitled: The New Price Point? ‘Free’ nnThe suggestion is that this kind of behavior has always been going on except papers used to take care to separate the ads from the related stories. However the online format has begun to collect data suggesting that putting related ads and stories next to each other may actually be more beneficial to readers since it presumably directs ads more towards an audience who may already be interested. nnI think actually the unrelated (Spectacular) nature of ads and adjacent text (for instance a diamond ad next to a story about war atrocities) is a rather disturbing if not disgusting phenomenon and the honesty in placement that this “gaffe” demonstrates is refreshing.

  • Becky Flanders

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=106347439\n\nGreat Fresh Air episode that that touches on this issue entitled: The New Price Point? ‘Free’ \n\nThe suggestion is that this kind of behavior has always been going on except papers used to take care to separate the ads from the related stories. However the online format has begun to collect data suggesting that putting related ads and stories next to each other may actually be more beneficial to readers since it presumably directs ads more towards an audience who may already be interested. \n\nI think actually the unrelated (Spectacular) nature of ads and adjacent text (for instance a diamond ad next to a story about war atrocities) is a rather disturbing if not disgusting phenomenon and the honesty in placement that this “gaffe” demonstrates is refreshing.

  • Dear

    I disagree that bloggers need to come up with their own set of rules for ethical conduct. There are probably some instances where the web needs more—not fewer—guidelines, but in general I think the rules of honorable journalism in the arts are pretty well established. The writer’s guidelines at Art Papers are pretty conscientious. Reprinted from their website:nn”CONFLICT OF INTERESTnna) The editors will not consider submissions in which a writer: writes about his/her work, the work of someone with whom the writer has a personal relationship, the work of someone with whom the writer has a financial relationship, any gallery that represents his/her work, any relative, any gallery institutionally related to the organization employing the writer or a colleague in the institution employing the writer.nnb) The editors will not consider submissions by a writer who has been hired to write a catalogue essay for the same artist or gallery within the past year. The exception, to be determined by the editors, shall be a curator who has shown an artist’s work and whose expertise on the artist would be considered an advantage in writing the article.nnc) The editors will not consider submissions by a writer whom the gallery or artist has paid or commissioned to write the article in question. Suggestions from galleries are permitted but the editors make the final decision.nnd) The editors will not consider a submission by a writer who collects the work of the artist in question.nne) Writers may not write reviews or articles for ART PAPERS on exhibitions that they already have covered for other publications.nnf) The editors shall decide whether to cover exhibitions curated by, featuring or including the work of any writer for ART PAPERS.”n—nIn the case of those who “do not claim to be objective—they’re supposed to be insiders”, a little disclosure is all that’s really needed (“Disclaimer: this review is about the work of my current lover” or “Full disclosure: my son-in-law works for this gallery”). These examples are exaggerations, of course, but you get my point. Also, there are plenty of insiders who *do* claim to be objective, and that’s where real problems occur. If, by a disclosure, we knew what was coming, we readers wouldn’t feel so kicked-below-the-belt later when we find out that Mr. Art Blogger is marrying his Latest Greatest Artist.nnUnfortunately, one rarely encounters this kind of fair disclosure, and most bloggers don’t reveal their connections (although they often exist)—and why would they, when art blogging is often a blatant attempt to curry favor, grab power, and garner social leverage? This is what makes print media appear to be more reliable than web-based, because we assume that a print journalist will be held to ethical and editorial standards, while the blogger can make any old shit up and be accountable to none.nnThat said, I know quite a few good art blogs that I trust. But the overall ratio of ethical to unethical is dismal.

  • Dear

    I disagree that bloggers need to come up with their own set of rules for ethical conduct. There are probably some instances where the web needs more—not fewer—guidelines, but in general I think the rules of honorable journalism in the arts are pretty well established. The writer’s guidelines at Art Papers are pretty conscientious. Reprinted from their website:\n\n”CONFLICT OF INTEREST\n\na) The editors will not consider submissions in which a writer: writes about his/her work, the work of someone with whom the writer has a personal relationship, the work of someone with whom the writer has a financial relationship, any gallery that represents his/her work, any relative, any gallery institutionally related to the organization employing the writer or a colleague in the institution employing the writer.\n\nb) The editors will not consider submissions by a writer who has been hired to write a catalogue essay for the same artist or gallery within the past year. The exception, to be determined by the editors, shall be a curator who has shown an artist’s work and whose expertise on the artist would be considered an advantage in writing the article.\n\nc) The editors will not consider submissions by a writer whom the gallery or artist has paid or commissioned to write the article in question. Suggestions from galleries are permitted but the editors make the final decision.\n\nd) The editors will not consider a submission by a writer who collects the work of the artist in question.\n\ne) Writers may not write reviews or articles for ART PAPERS on exhibitions that they already have covered for other publications.\n\nf) The editors shall decide whether to cover exhibitions curated by, featuring or including the work of any writer for ART PAPERS.”\n—\nIn the case of those who “do not claim to be objective—they’re supposed to be insiders”, a little disclosure is all that’s really needed (“Disclaimer: this review is about the work of my current lover” or “Full disclosure: my son-in-law works for this gallery”). These examples are exaggerations, of course, but you get my point. Also, there are plenty of insiders who *do* claim to be objective, and that’s where real problems occur. If, by a disclosure, we knew what was coming, we readers wouldn’t feel so kicked-below-the-belt later when we find out that Mr. Art Blogger is marrying his Latest Greatest Artist.\n\nUnfortunately, one rarely encounters this kind of fair disclosure, and most bloggers don’t reveal their connections (although they often exist)—and why would they, when art blogging is often a blatant attempt to curry favor, grab power, and garner social leverage? This is what makes print media appear to be more reliable than web-based, because we assume that a print journalist will be held to ethical and editorial standards, while the blogger can make any old shit up and be accountable to none.\n\nThat said, I know quite a few good art blogs that I trust. But the overall ratio of ethical to unethical is dismal.

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