There was a time when a daily paper of record like The Maui News was content to just report the news. The front page was for the news of the day, not self-serving puff-pieces on celebrities compensated by the paper. At The Maui News, those days are now apparently over.
No one picking up the paper’s Aug. 14, 2005 edition could miss the 2,100-word story “She Craves A Normal Life,” about former Iraqi War prisoner of war Jessica Lynch’s recent vacation to Maui. Set in a large brown box across most of the front page and jumped to virtually all of page A3, the piece included six photographs, four of which were in color.
The story, written by reporter Valerie Monson, was remarkable for its completely unremarkable repeating of already well-reported information: Lynch is a “pretty blonde” who “still comes across as a country girl at heart;” she’s still recovering from the wounds she sustained in the first days of the Iraqi invasion when she was badly injured in a convoy ambush and held prisoner for eight days; the stories about her allegedly “fighting to the death” when captured were nonsense; she’s going to college in the fall to become a teacher.
The story had no real news hook—no reason for its length, lavish use of photographs or even existence in the paper—save a single line that the casual reader probably skipped over without much thought:
“The Parkersburg News & Sentinel, a newspaper near her hometown in West Virginia, and its sister publication, The Maui News, covered the travel expenses for her and two of her girlfriends.”
Behold: The Maui News is now a travel agency! Who cares that Lynch hasn’t been news for over a year—we’ll fly her out here at our expense and then just write a story about that. This startling statement was matched by a note from News publisher Joe Bradley—who appeared in a front-page photo giving a lei to Lynch at Kahului Airport—attempting to justify why the paper was so generous:
“It’s our hope that Jessica’s trip will be seen as a tribute to all of those in the military who have served in the Middle East.”
In other words, Wheeling, West Virginia-based Ogden Newspaper Group, the parent company of the News and the Parkersburg paper—which ran Monson’s story on Aug. 15—paid Lynch to fly to Maui so its papers could then write a big story about her that would generate a lot of publicity about what a great a company it is.
According to Bradley, Lynch’s “dream vacation” has been in the works since Lynch’s rescue more than two years ago.
“When she was first injured, our company offered to bring her over,” Bradley said. “We heard she wanted to come to Hawaii… At the time, she was the most celebrated person in the war. No one thought the war would last this long.”
Refusing to say how much the trip cost, Bradley would only say that Ogden “covered her expenses.” He then added that the whole trip was to “thank her” for her war service.
The problem here is obvious: paying sources for their vacations isn’t journalism—it’s public relations, and pretty crass PR at that. Dubbed “pay to play” journalism in media circles, the act of paying a source for exclusive story access reduces an otherwise honorable paper like the News to the level of Oprah or the Today Show—programs that routinely engage in bidding wars for mindless celebrity interviews.
“Paying for a source to take a vacation is definitely outside the boundaries of independent journalism,” said Kelly McBride, the Poynter Institute’s Ethics Group Leader, in an Aug. 17, 2005 email. Based in St. Petersburg, Florida, the Poynter Institute provides seminars and training on journalistic ethics and techniques.
McBride gave three reasons why newspapers ought not to be paying sources.
“First, Lynch might feel obligated to participate in stories in return for the vacation,” McBride wrote. “She might feel pressure to say certain things or act in a certain way, because she thinks the journalists expect her to do so.”
Sources who feel compelled to “say certain things” in exchange for a reward makes a journalist’s job of finding out what’s actually going on in the world all but impossible. Bradley denied this was the case here, though he did say that covering the vacation was always part of the deal.
“We’re in the newspaper business,” he said. “I think [Lynch] knew we would do a story on her.”
But even if giving Lynch a free trip to Maui didn’t affect her answers to Monson’s questions at all, the practice is still wrong. There’s no escaping that such practices shape readers’ perceptions of how reporters go about gathering information for a story.
“[R]eaders are likely to see those stories about Lynch as less than credible,” McBride wrote, “because [they] are likely to assume Lynch was ‘rewarded’ for her participation in the story.”
And that casts doubt on the paper as a whole, to say nothing of the whole journalism profession.
“Finally, readers and sources will doubt the authenticity of other stories,” wrote McBride. “They are likely to generalize that this stuff happens all the time and every source who gets in the paper gets a reward. Thus the information itself loses its value. And journalists become less credible.”
In any case, the irony of splashing so much hype and coverage on Lynch, whose greatest wish is apparently a “normal life,” seemed completely lost on the News. In fact, Monson went out of her way to point out how Lynch has lately been showered with gifts from publicity-seekers.
“Because others in the war have suffered far more crippling injuries than she did, Lynch has been criticized for all the goodies she later got,” Monson wrote. “Lynch has also learned the dark side of celebrity. When she’s asked to make a public appearance, even for a good cause, there’s usually people with their hand out.”
Photo of Jessica Lynch: Department of Defense/Wikimedia Commons