Newspapers have special governance responsibilities. There has been much reported on corrupt practices of British newspapers in paying public officials for information that informs news stories and also on an apparently widespread historic practice of hacking into people's voicemail to gain information for reporting. It is worthwhile pointing out, in passing, that while those journalists implicated were acting improperly their motivation was, generally, to investigate news stories that were of public interest.
There is another area where the news media has responsibilities that has, so far, received less attention. I recently spotted a very peculiar article that illustrates this, in the Sunday Times (Kiki Loizou, "How I Made It: Maria, Hatzistefanis, founder of Rodial", 5 August 2012). You may argue that there is nothing wrong in a reputable newspaper running a piece on the background of the founder of a controversial business. It did, after all, state quite clearly that Rodial had sued a docter who cast doubts on the efficacy of their products and quoted the business founder as saying she had no regrets in having done so. However, let us examine this by taking a wholly hypothetical and extreme position. Let us suppose that none of Rodial's products have the effect their manufacturer claims and that it is a business that preys on the credulous and the desperate. Would it then be right for a reputable newspaper to be offering helpful publicity without calling it an advertisement?
You may argue that the article was balanced but I think that is questionable. At the time of the legal action against the doctor it was claimed its purpose was to make it too expensive for her to defend herself when she thought she had merely expressed a reasonable opinion - the intention, it was suggested, was to shut her up. The doctor had expressed only mild doubts, not an all-out assertion that the claims for Rodial products were balderdash, and she had merely asked for the company to publish scientific proof for what seemed to be extraordinary claims. See my previous post on this matter. No peer reviewed evidence for efficacy has ever been published. Loizou's article does not make any of this clear and it is pretty material. You may wish to look at Rodial's website yourself to inform your own opinion of the products and claims for them. You may disagree with me. The range has extended considerably over the last couple of years and the products that caused all the fuss - under 'bodycare' - are now a small element of the whole. I admit that, personally, I find the claims for this range of products hard to believe without seeing some convincing supporting evidence. A counter-view to mine might be that many of the skincare products sold by Rodial make claims that are no more extravagant than many cosmetic companies, which also offer no proof of efficacy to potential customers. Indeed, for example, a study published in the past year suggested that only two or three of the many anti-wrinkle creams on the market work at all - all the rest have no effect.
My problem with the Sunday Times article is that it provides unbalanced publicity for this company. Are there other articles in supposed 'papers of record' that are similarly unbalanced? Do not newspapers that claim to be 'papers of record' owe some duty of care to their readers? Is this not a governance matter? How did the article come to be written, did Rodial's representatives approach the journalist, is the journalist a user of their products? I do not suggest that News International, the owner of the Sunday Times, is worse than other proprietors. It just happens that they have recently been the centre of a public relations and media storm concerning governance, which might have made them a bit more careful.