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Paying for Positive Coverage: Good Business or Breach of Ethics?

Last Friday, NPR’s All Things Considered reported on an arrangement between The Orange County Register in Southern California and three local universities—Chapman University, the University of California, Irvine and California State University, Fullerton—which essentially allows the institutions to pay for positive, feel-good feature stories and guest columns by faculty and administrators.
With a price tag of $275,000 annually, it’s an enticing proposition for both sides.  After all newspapers are struggling to bring in revenue and fill pages with fewer resources.  And colleges are clamoring not only for coverage of the good things happening on campus, but also for complete control over what’s being said about them.  What’s more, the ink the universities are getting through this program would cost an estimated $1.2 million, if they were purchasing the same of amount of ad space.
On the surface, it seems to make good business sense.  Yet, this kind of “partnership” certainly raises some eyebrows—and brings up a lot of questions about what’s ethical on both sides of the agreement.  I know that was the case for me and for Jarad Berstein, director of public relations and media management at Drake University, who brought the article to my attention.  Jarad investigated further and came to learn that the Register does publish a disclaimer about the sponsored content for people who bother to read the tiny (and buried on the second page of each article!) fine print.  But, I’m still not convinced that makes it all right.
The bottom line is that the public expects unbiased reporting.  And they expect it to be separate, and look different, from paid advertising—more than reasonable expectations of American journalism.  But times are changing.  And journalism is definitely changing with it.
While I’m a believer that change can be a very good thing, in this case I’m not so sure.  In my opinion, both the Register and the universities have far more to lose than gain from this arrangement—trust and credibility chief among them. I’m not sure I would risk it.
But, what do you think? Does this practice blur the line a little too much for you?
Note: This story was previously reported by the Los Angeles Times.