Weapon in a Newspaper War: Politicians

By David Craig

At a time when many cities are watching one newspaper fight to stay afloat, New Orleans sits in the middle of a newspaper war.

The Times-Picayune, which angered many residents last year by going to three days a week in print, is now battling The Advocate, which is based in Baton Rouge but producing a New Orleans edition – now with its own New Orleans name. And The Times-Picayune is fighting back with new print products.

In the thick of this competition, The New Orleans Advocate made an unusual decision to use local politicians in television ads for the paper. Kevin Allman, a reporter for the New Orleans weekly Gambit, called me to ask my opinion for a story he was doing about the decision.

This was a new one to me. As his story points out, the campaign also uses other well-known locals such as musicians and sports figures. But among the people appearing are two parish presidents, a sheriff and the vice president of the New Orleans City Council.

As I often do, I pointed out a relevant principle in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics – in this case, acting independently. Allman did a good job in the story highlighting two specific elements: “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived” and “Remain free of associations that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”

I was more concerned here about perception than reality. I don’t have any reason to think journalists at The New Orleans Advocate will be swayed to distort their coverage and favor one side in issues  involving these officials. But what will the public think?

I think damaged credibility is a real danger if politicians promote news organizations, especially at a time when many in the public have a low view of journalists’ credibility and see media outlets as biased. Kelly McBride from the Poynter Institute put it well in Allman’s story: “The Advocate obviously has a competitive relationship with The Times-Picayune,” McBride said. “If the politicians join The Advocate in sharing that message, what does that say about The Advocate’s ability to critically examine those politicians?”

I’m all for creative thinking about new ways to promote newspapers in an intensely competitive journalism environment. But using politicians in the promotion raises too many questions for me.

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About David Craig

Professor and associate dean, Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Oklahoma. I teach and write about journalism ethics.

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