Being Aboveboard About Underwriters
Maine Public Broadcasting Network’s policies on disclosure generate criticism
by Al Diamon
The radio stations of the Maine Public Broadcasting Network are commercial-free. Except for underwriting announcements. But public radio executives insist those little 10-second interruptions in programming aren’t really commercials.
Unlike advertising in other media, underwriting announcements are limited by Federal Communications Commission rules. They cannot contain “comparative or qualitative descriptions, price information, calls to action, or inducements to buy, sell, rent or lease.” Violating that regulation can result in stations paying hefty fines.
Another difference: Advertising can be written off on a company’s taxes as a cost of doing business. Underwriting can also be tax deductible, but as a charitable contribution.
Finally, there’s the image thing. Ads are crass. Underwriting is refined. Everyone knows commercial broadcasting is in the thrall of its sponsors. But public radio and TV are pure because underwriting is … well, it isn’t advertising.
Underneath it all, though, they’re both about bringing in the cash, and it can be tough to distinguish between them. According to MPBN’s website, underwriting has “the impact of a traditional media buy.” It reaches “a large, highly desirable audience.” And public broadcasting’s sales people — oops, sorry, I mean “Underwriting Team” — will help your business make “the most effective and creative use of your marketing budget.”
Nevertheless, for purposes of argument, let’s accept public broadcasting’s claim that there’s a substantive difference between underwriting and advertising. In which case, a serious ethical question arises: When MPBN does a news story involving one of its major underwriters, should it include a disclaimer noting that financial support?
In May, Maine Public Radio covered the announcement by First Wind, a Boston-based industrial wind-power company, that it planned to build the largest wind farm in Maine in Somerset and Piscataquis counties. (To MPBN’s and the Bangor Daily News’ credit, the rest of the news media ignored this story for a month, before finally catching up in mid-June.)
As MPBN’s annual report for last year shows, First Wind is one of the network’s largest underwriters, having contributed over $25,000. Opponents of the project (and in the interest of full disclosure, please note that I’ve written several political columns criticizing wind-power development in rural Maine) were quick to e-mail me complaining that the story should have mentioned that financial connection.
In spite of my anti-wind bias, I wasn’t convinced such disclosure was necessary. It seemed to me that general mentions of underwriters on the air and in annual reports were sufficient. I thought that adding a disclaimer to every story involving somebody who gave money to public broadcasting would clog the airwaves with unnecessary information. Commercial stations don’t disclose that companies they report on in the news also advertise with them. But, I reminded myself, advertising is not the same as underwriting.
After talking to an ethics expert, another non-profit news organization and a disgruntled wind-power opponent, I’m less certain my initial reaction was correct.
Let’s start with Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalism studies in St. Petersburg, Florida. Clark, who has 20 years of experience training reporters and editors in ethics, said if MPBN had disclosed the link to First Wind, it would have “added more protein to their credibility.”
He added, “I’m not saying a failure to do so is some kind of huge ethical violation. I’m saying dealing with situations like this should be part of their standards and practices. They should establish standards and practices that allow a warning light to go off when you’re doing a story about someone to whom you’re beholden.”
At the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonprofit that specializes in investigative stories on state government, co-founder Naomi Schalit said news organizations should err on the side of more disclosure. “Appearance is a powerful thing,” Schalit wrote in an e-mail, “and we believe that disclosure goes a long way toward reassuring readers that they have all the information they need to evaluate our journalism.”
Karen Bessey Pease of Lexington Township is a vocal opponent of wind projects and an equally vocal critic of MPBN’s coverage of the issue. “I would like to see Maine Public Radio do a story that might make one of their major sponsors not look good,” Pease said. “If there’s nothing to hide, there’s no reason not to disclose. It takes five seconds to say where the money comes from.”
(Pease also criticized the public radio story for failing to include any comments from project opponents, something that did show up in later coverage in other media.)
Mark Vogelzang, the president and CEO of MPBN, said the network has policies in place for dealing with conflicts of interest. As an example, he cited his reporters disclosing their membership in a union, the Maine Education Association, that has frequently clashed with Republican Gov. Paul LePage. But the original disclaimer MPBN used only said some staff at the network belonged to the MEA. It wasn’t until after I and others pointed out that the reporter covering the story involving the MEA was a union member that the disclosure was upgraded to mention that fact.
Vogelzang also said the network is careful to include a disclosure whenever it covers a member of its board of trustees.
Regarding the First Wind matter, Vogelzang said the underwriting announcements on the air and the listing of underwriters in MPBN’s annual report are sufficient notification. He questioned whether the disclosure issue with First Wind was a big issue for his audience.
“I don’t want to minimize some of these concerns,” he said, “but no one has come to me saying they want more information and that we’re not being truthful.”
Vogelzang said there’s a “very clear editorial firewall” between underwriting and the news department to prevent the former from influencing the latter. “We’re doing exactly what we need to do,” he said.
Maybe, but sometimes doing a little more than you need to do — even if it seems excessive — pays dividends in enhanced credibility and reduced controversy. I say that even though I’m not as convinced as the folks quoted above that it’s absolutely necessary in this case.
But then, I’m one of those Neanderthals who can’t see any difference between advertising and underwriting.
Al Diamon can be emailed at email@example.com.