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THE ETHICS OF USING A "SELFIE" IN EDITORIAL MATERIALS, AND OTHER POLICIES
by DTN's Editor-in-Chief Greg Horstmeier, Chair, American Agricultural Editors' Assn (AAEA) Ethics Committee

Whether you're a "red carpet" watcher or not, chances are you've heard the hubbub around the "selfie" (smartphone photo) comedian Ellen DeGeneres orchestrated of herself and a group of Hollywood celebs during the recent Academy Awards show.

If you missed it, and most of us with better things to do did, DeGeneres - the show's host - created what appeared to be a light-hearted and completely spontaneous moment when she pulled out her smart phone and asked actor Bradley Cooper to snap a group shot of her surrounded by Hollywood A-listers. DeGeneres then posted the image to Twitter and actually crashed that company's servers due to millions of retweets. Many folks then and later marveled at her cleverness in pulling off such levity during what is typically a heavily choreographed evening.

The next day, though, news began to circulate that Samsung spent some $20 million in advertising around Oscar night, and, wouldn't you know it, the phone DeGeneres used that night just happened to be made by that very electronics company. As with the warning in those passenger-side car mirrors, events of the evening were more closely tied than they appeared.

It's now known one of Samsung's investments that night included handing a spanking-new white Samsung Galaxy Note 3 phone to DeGeneres before the show with the understanding she would get the phone plenty of airtime during the evening. Airtime it did get. In addition to the "selfie" stunt, which was shown multiple times on any news coverage of the event and across newspaper and website pages, DeGeneres also brandished the phone on several other occasions.

Product placements such as this are increasingly commonplace in the entertainment biz. Cinema and TV screens are filled with beverage bottles and computers and automobiles, with the camera ever-so-deftly holding just a beat or two on the product's logo. Movie makers get paid for the effort, and advertisers revel in the high-level visibility they score in the process.

This happens in sports too. Rare is a NASCAR driver not seen holding and sipping from a bottle of his or her sponsor's beverage. Water coolers at football games have long been festooned with the logos of sports drinks. It's all designed to tempt viewers to buy the product. If my favorite actor or athlete uses product X, maybe I should too.

It's fine for entertainment, but when it creeps into journalism that's going too far. Like most media outlets, we at DTN and our sister magazine The Progressive Farmer couldn't survive without advertising and sponsorships. Those revenue streams, along with subscription revenue from our customers, help keep the lights on and information flowing into your satellite, mobile device, computer screen and mail box.

We're very careful, though, to be clear about what is an advertisement, and what is journalistic information. It's a long-standing principle that we be clear regarding who is providing information to the reader or viewer.

If we attend an event sponsored by a company that sells things to farmers, we say so in our reporting of that event. If one of those companies sponsors an activity we organize, we likewise make every attempt to be clear about that connection.

When an advertiser is placing paid-for information in a way that might be seen as journalistic space, those items are clearly marked "advertorial" or "advertisement."

Our reporters do not accept travel funds or hotel accommodations from outside sources, particularly when said support is meant to insure attendance at a company press event. It's a significant investment to send reporters around the country to cover critical events and to gather information. We make that investment, and if an event is deemed not worth the expense, we don't go.

We likewise don't write about a product or a service because that company has decided to advertise in or otherwise support our products. Nor do we shun a product whose maker does not advertise. We write when we think there is value to our readers and customers.

Not all in this media business can say these things and the proliferation of low-cost online web sites and similar "informational" venues has increased, at least to my thinking, the cases where one has to question just how a product or company came to be mentioned or displayed.

I bring all this up for two reasons: One, it's always on my mind when I return from annual farm and livestock conventions where the freebies and junkets are plentiful, both to farmers and to journalists.

Secondly, our company recently announced a partnership with DuPont Pioneer in which we'll be providing news, weather and markets information through a new service the seed and chemical company is creating for customers. The announcement raised a few eyebrows among my fellow editors, though in reality it's nothing new; we've provided, for a cost, a portion of our proprietary information to companies large and small throughout DTN's long history in agriculture.

While this latest venture creates a significant arrangement between the two companies on the business side of the fence, it in no way changes this newsroom's approach to covering agriculture or the organizations and businesses involved in it. When there's a reason to, we'll openly remind readers of business connections that might be related to an article's subject matter.


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