(Photo Via Flickr Creative Commons/Owen Moore)
NOTE: After hearing from Sinclair’s representatives and viewing emails between the company and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton‘s campaign, I don’t believe the interview arrangements fell outside what would be considered ethical journalism. Therefore, I apologize to Sinclair for assuming the Politico story, which was based off third-party reports, was accurate. READ FULL NOTE HERE
The Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcast Group struck a deal with Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election to air interviews with the candidate without added context in exchange for access, according to Politico.
Sinclair, which owns television stations across the country, made the offer to both candidates, Politico reports. Sen. Tim Kaine, who was former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s running mate, reportedly participated in a few of these interviews.
“It was a standard package, but an extended package, extended story where you’d hear more directly from candidate on the issue instead of hearing all the spin and all the rhetoric,” a Sinclair representative told Politico.
While Sinclair’s explanation may sound reasonable, such agreements hurt other journalists, the integrity of Sinclair’s broadcasts and the quality of information received by viewers.
Most worrisome is that agreeing to air extended interviews with candidates without added context shackles journalists and allows candidates’ statements to go unchallenged. Essentially, Sinclair turned over editorial control to the candidates.
Sinclair viewers may end up misinformed if Kaine or Trump, who is now president-elect, misstated facts during those interviews. Journalists at Sinclair-owned stations may have wanted to correct the record after the interviews aired, but were not allowed due to the agreement.
These agreements also end up increasing the number of barriers for all journalists covering the presidential election, including those at the news organization that made the deal.
Access to a candidate is already a valuable commodity, and news organizations often try to woo campaigns to pick them for interviews or responses. News organizations increase the value of that access by giving a candidate access to readers, viewers or listeners with less and less restrictions.
A news organization can start a bidding war with others for more pleasing terms. If the campaign finds an organization offering better access to potential voters, they may come back to Sinclair for less restrictive terms.
People may argue that these deals make sense given that journalism is a business, but it’s a unique business. Journalism is based on principles, which are outlined in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.
Sinclair should have – at the very least – told their viewers about the agreements made with Trump and Kaine.
The Trump campaign told Politico that it made similar deals with other broadcast groups, such as Hearst Television. The organization denies any deal existed.
All news organizations must recommit themselves to journalism’s basic principles as they move forward in an unfamiliar environment, where the president-elect and his administration is openly hostile toward the press.
Cutting backroom deals to give politicians unfettered access to a news organization’s readers, viewers and/or listeners is not among those principles and is not in the spirit of SPJ’s Code of Ethics.
Additionally, journalists must speak up when their news organizations engage in ethically questionable activities. If speaking up may put their livelihoods in jeopardy, the journalists are welcome to reach out to SPJ’s ethics committee.
We need to hold the proverbial feet of news organizations to the fire as much as we do politicians.
Andrew M. Seaman is the ethics committee chairperson for the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee.