A recent exchange in the New York Times touched on the role of publicists in the journalism process, following a New York Times Magazine profile of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. that mentioned his publicist (though not by name) nearly a dozen times in the article.
I can’t remember a publicist getting so much mention in any celebrity profile before. The unnamed publicist was part of a key and controlling theme in the profile.
And that sparked the issue: “A strong ethical argument can be made that the reader should be made aware of the circumstances under which an interview was conducted. Isn’t the reader entitled to be aware of these conditions?” asked Larry Bloomstein, a reader from Dix Hills, NY.
The response from the Times was also interesting. According to Philip B. Corbett, standards editor:
“There are no clear-cut rules for when such interactions (by a publicist) should be noted in a story. My rule of thumb would be simple: If the information would significantly inform the reader’s understanding of the story, we should probably include it. The same goes for other details of how an interview takes place.
The Times’ Public Editor or ombudsman, Arthuer S. Brisbane went on to suggest that:
“Publicists and other handlers should be more visible to readers, and perhaps not only to enhance readers’ understanding of a story. Some readers want to know when a third party is actively working to obtain or shape coverage for a news subject. Unfortunately, this activity takes place largely out of the view of readers. I believe that news organizations, including The Times, need to be more transparent and let readers see behind the scenes. The penalty for failing to do so is to invite suspicion that coverage can be manipulated.”
We live and do business in an age of transparency, but would reporting on how publicists arrange interviews be useful information for readers or would that information serve as a distraction to the larger story?
Check out the entire exchange here.