Monday, March 06, 2006

Wal-Mart/Blogger Story in the Mainstream Media

The story we broke right here, about how public relations people working for Wal-Mart have cultivated sympathetic bloggers, is now finding its way into the mainstream media.

New York Times reporter Michael Barbaro is being scooped by bloggers on his own story. Apparently he’s working on a piece about Wal-Mart writing directly to supportive bloggers with more pro-Wal-Mart tid bits and stories, so he’s contacting some of the bloggers on Wal-Mart’s mailing list. One of the bloggers in question pre-empts the Times article with transparency of what Wal-Mart has been sending. It’s an interesting tactic by Wal-Mart. I wonder how many other companies do the same. I get occasional mail from Firefox and the odd book publicist.
And Daniel Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer comments as follows:
It raises a good question: Is it important, when reading his round up of articles about unions having trouble recruiting picketers because they made too good money to miss work,for us to know that he’d had help rounding them up from a company paid by Wal-Mart to support its reputation. Would a reader want to know that an Inquirer reporter, say, had a union’s help in documenting problems some company had? That seems to be the question. In both cases, I’d say yes. Transparency only helps, and if disclosure makes the reporter or blogger embarrassed - then do your own work and don’t accept the help.
Rubin, of course, is being silly here. Reporters get “tips” and “leads” from all sorts of places, and seldom feel the need to explain where they got the idea for a story. The story stands or falls on its own merits. This is true for reporters at Philadelphia Inquirer, and everywhere else.

Consider this: reporters are allowed to use information in articles and conceal the source. We have done it, and so has everybody else. A source may give information as “not for attribution,” meaning the source can’t be named (“a source close to the History Department at Marquette”). A source can go “on background” (the information can be used, but no source can be named, and the reporter cannot allude to having a source).

Yet Rubin is saying that the source of mere tips or leads has to be named.

That’s not a standard he would apply to anybody whose articles he agreed with, but he’s willing to apply it to pro-Wal-Mart bloggers.


Rubin responds: “Tips are one thing. A story-by-numbers — or blog-by-numbers — is another. Then the source’s role behind the scenes is part of the news. Of course it’s in the vast gray areas where this becomes tricky.”

We agree entirely.


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