During the College Football national semifinal games on New Year's Eve, ESPN NFL reporters Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter both sent out rather strange tweets promoting Domino's Pizza. Deadspin first reported, and the Wall Street Journal confirmed, that these were advertisements and that the reporters were paid to send those out. (Although contrary to the headline, the Wall Street Journal never actually says why they did this.)
Big deal, right? Well, actually ... Yeah, it kind of is. There are at least three ways this is a big deal:
- Journalists shouldn't be shills.
This can admittedly feel like a dated reason. It's one that has its roots in the idea of objectivity, and that's an idea that feels a little stodgy and old-fashioned at times. For years, advertising-editorial was the Church-and-State of journalism. But that wall doesn't mean as much since in this digital age.
But here's the thing. Let's pretend it wasn't Dominos they were advertising for. It was Papa John's.
You see where I'm going with this, right?
Right around the time the reporters advertise for Papa John's on their Twitter feed, one of the biggest stars on their beats who is also a pitchman for Papa John's gets implicated in a potential HGH controversy.
As the reporter in this hypothetical scenario, you're cooked. Even if you're an honest, scrupulous reporter who does everything by the book, you're toast.
All you ever have as a reporter is your credibility. Once you run an ad like this, it calls that into question. Everything you write, for better or worse, will be looked with a critical eye. Perception matters, and these ads make the reporters look bad.
- They were unlabled.
This is actually the big problem here. FTC rules (as Deadspin reported) say that sponsored tweets must be clearly marked as ads. If you take money to mention a product in an ad, by law you have to say so. It has to be labled as an advertisement.
These didn't do that.
For me, this is the bigger issue here. The potential for perceived conflict of interest is important, but I do think a lot of readers are smart enough to know when there's a real conflict or not. Also, I do trust reporters not to hold stories for blatant commercial reasons (structural and sociological reasons? Sure. But not blatant commercial ones. I'm more more skeptical of Mortensen for his Deflategate coverage than this nonsense). According to the Journal, ESPN reporters are able to make deals on their own, and I'm not about to tell anybody how they should or shouldn't make money.
But just be transparent about it. Say so in the tweet. It's 2016. This is how the publishing business works. People care much more about you not being transparent than about the act itself.
- They were terrible.
This is where I'm really bothered by it.
"New Year's Eve means college football and Dominos."
This is the best you can do? This is how you sell something?
Look, sports is far too commercialized already. There's too much money and too much corporate interest. It's why the NFL strives for such a bland and colorless image. It's why Darren Rovell exists. It's why sports is too serious too much of the time.
If you're going to sell a piece of your journalistic credibility, if you're going to shill for somebody, at least be creative and have fun with it.
- This post was actually not brought to you by the Left Hand Brewing Company. I received no compensation for this from them or any company. I am, however, enjoying one of their Nitro Milk Stouts while working on this post tonight.