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Q: If news organizations sometimes run stories to appease corporate interests, do they also ignore stories for the same reason?

A:

To start, the word “appease” may be too strong in this context. But that doesn’t mean that, sometimes, in the real world, the wall between corporate interests and journalistic independence can be compromised. The fact is, principles and ideals aside, journalism is a very broad field, and not all publications follow the same ethical guidelines.

Consider a daily newspaper, read by hundreds of thousands of people every day, people who rely on that newspaper for careful, thoughtful reporting on issues of real consequence, including politics, the environment, the economy and conflict zones. If such a paper were to prioritize corporate interests over journalistic ethics, its reputation among its most demanding, critically-minded readers would decline faster than you can say “news cycle.”

So, while some newspapers have, at times, failed to keep that wall between the business side and news side of the business intact, as in an unfortunate case from more than 20 years ago involving the Los Angeles Times and the Staples Center arena in that city, such instances are rare.

Now consider a lifestyle magazine, including any magazine that covers travel, fitness or a specific sport. While some of the best investigative journalism is, indeed, produced by magazines, many magazines exist in a kind of gray zone between journalism and marketing. It would be very unusual, for instance, to find a deeply reported feature story on the use of undocumented migrant laborers in the construction of a new resort in a magazine like Travel and Leisure. More likely, you’d find articles about the amenities at that resort, the golf course on its grounds and the two-star Michelin restaurant that just opened in its dining room. The restaurant will, of course, receive a glowing review.

Does this mean that the magazine has no integrity? Not exactly. Only that its editors and writers know that people read it as a diversion from their workday lives, or possibly, to plan a vacation, not for hard-hitting investigative reporting.

The same is often true of fitness magazines, like Self and Men’s Health. Those magazines, while technically independent from the products they might cover, are not in the business of looking critically at those products. Rather, they offer their readers what they want: information on which products are best, and how to reach their athletic or physical goals. In a sense, they’re helping sell those products. Or, in the case of travel magazines, those hotels, resorts, or restaurants.

Does this sometimes lead to omissions? Certainly. Editors with no appetite for controversy may just avoid those topics altogether.

Similarly, if a publication has a mutually beneficial relationship with an event, such as a running magazine covering a major marathon, the magazine may steer clear of negative, or at least critical, coverage of that marathon. Of course, there are limits to this too — if the race director were found to be helping an athlete cheat and then sharing the returns (winnings), then it would be grossly unethical to not cover it.

This is all to simply say that there are ideals, as Elements of Journalism lays out, and then there are the realities of the diverse, multifaceted and endlessly varied journalism industry itself.