Media professionals attending an industry conference this month received $5 gift cards from McDonald’s encouraging them to “enjoy your favorite burger on us”.
Complementary duffle bags handed to journalists at the event held flyers from Coca-Cola repudiating reports that the sweeteners in its products are unhealthy.
The messages were paid for by sponsors of the National Association of Black Journalists convention, held this year in Tampa, Fla. Media giants like The McClatchy Company, Cox Enterprises and Gannett Company have traditionally been the top-tier supporters of the journalism industry’s major annual conferences. But not this year. Increasingly, convention sponsors are outsiders – companies that are not part of the media, but are frequently covered by it.
McClatchy gave at least $100,000 to NABJ’s 2007 convention, but less than $10,000 this year. Cox disappeared from the sponsorship list altogether.
Now non-media corporations – Rent-A-Center, GMAC Financial Services, NASCAR – get top billing. Such companies made up 64 percent of the NABJ convention’s listed sponsors this year, up ten percentage points from 2006. (The total number of all sponsors dropped considerably during that time, from 77 to 33.)
“The media industry has gone through complete upheaval over the past 24 months, so that discretionary income they have to provide sponsorships goes away first thing,” said Barbara Ciara, whose two-year term as NABJ president ended Aug. 9. “You’ve got your Googles and your Apples and your other non-traditionals that are joining us and picking up where those media companies have left off.”
Ciara and leaders of other professional journalism organizations insist the change doesn’t create problems.
“We don’t do it in a way that’s going to make us beholden to any one organization,” she said.
Still, the growing proportion of non-media sponsors can raise “huge ethical issues,” said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader for The Poynter Institute, a center that provides professional development for journalists.
The conflict came to light for McBride at a 2008 journalism conference in Chicago, where she joined a panel sponsored by McDonald’s about online media. The panelists were bloggers for the fast-food chain touting the menu’s nutritional value, McBride said.
“The content of the convention was directly affected by the desires of the advertisers,” said Keith Woods, Poynter’s dean of faculty. “That’s the thing we are always afraid of – losing independence by having it essentially purchased from us.”
Representatives of UNITY: Journalists of Color, which organized the conference, did not return calls.
McDonald’s USA communications manager Nicole Neal, who oversees the company’s national African-American communications program, said the bloggers were part of McDonald’s Mom Quality Correspondents program, but they were not on the chain’s payroll. She said the session was meant to show journalists how social media allows ordinary people to spread information about companies.
But like the Coca-Cola flyer at the NABJ convention, it provided a sometimes controversial organization an opportunity to combat negative impressions.
“Media is a communicator of information about our company. It’s a great opportunity to be a part of the conversation, to facilitate the conversation,” Neal said. “We know the quality of our food. For us it’s an opportunity to give people the information to make a decision.”
McBride and Woods said taking money from outside companies isn’t an ethical problem itself, but there can be a slippery slope.
“It’s not a foregone conclusion that if you get corporate sponsorship, you lose independence,” Woods said. “But if you are not careful, you can.”
The Society of Professional Journalists bans corporations from sponsoring individual programs or panels, said interim co-Executive Director Chris Vachon.
“That would be a concern for journalists with any special interest group,” Vachon said. “Journalists are looking for unbiased information.”
But that rule only applies when the request to sponsor a session comes from the corporation, she said.
At the SPJ convention this month, pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly is sponsoring a session on mental health reporting, a networking reception with company leaders and a tour of its facilities. But Vachon said SPJ brought the idea to Lilly, not the other way around.
“We went to them. It wasn’t a condition of their sponsorship,” she said. “It’s an important distinction.”
The difference for NABJ leaders isn’t who makes the request, but who delivers the information. Ciara, the outgoing NABJ president, said while the organization does allow corporations to sponsor panels, they can’t decide who the panelists will be.
“We’re not going to load up the panel with a whole bunch of people representing their company,” Ciara siad. “That would be disingenuous to our membership and it really wouldn’t teach them anything.”
Just how much say sponsors have in the programming at journalism convention varies.
Eli Lilly, which is a major funder for several journalism conventions, sponsored a panel on health initiatives for this month’s NABJ convention. Carla Cox, manager of corporate communications for Lilly, said the corporation pitched several topic ideas to NABJ but the organization had final say.
One thing the drug company did want say on was the menu for the early-morning session, titled “Making a Difference for Better Health”. But instead of the fruit-and-grains breakfast Lilly called for, platters of bacon and potatoes were laid out for the audience.
Panel moderator CBS News Correspondent Michelle Miller said the sponsors were “mortified” by the food and Cox said she should have made a stronger point with the journalism organization about the menu.
By sponsoring journalism conventions, Lilly hopes to become a regular resource for reporters, Cox said. The drug company offered a folder full of DVDs, news releases and information to journalists who attended the session.
Debate about who should provide the financial backing for journalism conventions has been going on for years, leaders said. For some, the move toward a less media-heavy list of sponsors is a good thing. Having a diverse group of corporate supporters makes the journalists organizations less beholden to big businesses, not more, they argue.
“From an ethical standpoint, it’s actually more important to have a wide range of supporters,” said Bryan Monroe, who served as NABJ president from 2005 to 2007. “If all you had supporting NABJ were the big media companies, it would make it more difficult to criticize them when they’re doing wrong.”
Black Entertainment Television hasn’t been a listed sponsor of the NABJ convention since 2006. In 2007, the organization gave BET its Thumbs Down Award, citing stereotypical and derogatory images of black people in its programming.
That loss didn’t hurt the convention, Monroe said, because there were other companies unaffiliated with BET that made up for the financial support.
Former NABJ President Les Payne agreed that cutting back on big media sponsors is a good thing for the group.
NABJ “came into existence to challenge the major media outlets. My conflict of interest is taking money from the New York Times and from Rupert Murdoch,” Payne said.
“We have to be smart about it … and not be panicked by some sense of moral outrage and ethics,” he said of taking sponsorships from non-media companies. “The discussion is a healthy one to have.”