This stories about Katie Couric and Adam Schefter are momentary blips in the news cycle. Most people will forget about them quickly. Yet, they’re important for PR pros, who remain partners with journalists in the quest for earned media. Above all, the concern for PR pros is that these stories hurt, at least temporarily, earned media's value. Goodness knows, media needs help not more hurt at this time.
A forthcoming Couric book, “Going There,” allegedly includes the 'revelation' that she deleted bits of a 2016 interview printed in Yahoo! News with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then 83 years old. Progressive icon Ginsburg's view of NFL player Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national seemed more like that of her late conservative friend Justice Antonin Scalia.
To "protect" the judge, Couric edited out Ginsburg's remarks. As a result, the printed interview included only bits of Ginsburg's criticism of Kaepernick, two newspapers reported this week. They 'obtained' early copies of the book.
Did Couric's publisher, Little, Brown & Company, selectively leak books so this tidbit could generate controversy, buzz and, hopefully, boost sales? PR pros likely know the answer to that question.
And Little, Brown likely got more than a little pleasure seeing NY Times journalist Maggie Haberman mention the issue.
This is toxic on a lot of levels. https://t.co/cH1ZgpPPX2
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) October 14, 2021
Similarly, the publisher probably enjoyed coverage from The New Republic's Natalie Shure. She rightly argues Ginsburg, a sitting justice at the time, needed no protection. A fair point.
Another good argument is that Couric's job was reporting news, not doing PR for Ginsburg.
the idea that "she was elderly and probably didn't understand the question" is such blatant horse shit! Not only was RBG an active justice at the time, she answered the question clearly and extensively. Her answer was just appallingly bad, not confused
— Natalie Shure (@nataliesurely) October 13, 2021
Garden Variety Journalism
On the other hand, what Couric did is something PR pros understand happens daily–journalists and editors tweak or edit what interview subjects say. They do so for many reasons. Sometimes it's for space; other times it's for brevity or clarity.
And, as communicators also know, if you want complete control of an interview or a message, use owned media.
Another possible alternative for the communicator is booking your author on C-SPAN, where unedited content is a point of pride.
In the Ginsburg example, maybe you argue that Couric owed history a complete accounting of what the justice said. The PR pro would respond, 'That's called a transcript.'
Moreover, PR pros would say that with peoples' reduced attention span, the appetite for transcripts (or long articles) is limited. That's a nice way of saying only political junkies, historians and researchers read transcripts.
And really, Couric's edited interview leaves little confusion about Ginsburg's un-progressive take on Kaepernick. Toxic?
PR pros would not buy the argument that Couric was unethical, unless she promised her Yahoo! story was unedited. She didn't make that promise.
Plenty of Ethical Issues
Still, if we want to talk journalistic ethics, there's plenty to discuss. For example:
- Is it ethical for journalists to accept perks from companies they write about? How many PR pros pay for trade journalists' meals? Or send a gift at the holidays? Tickets to a ball game? A trip to visit an event? Let's not even get started on influencers. Incidentally, journalists, reviewers and influencers are supposed to disclose in articles and posts when they receive gifts. Let's agree the disclosure rules are followed sporadically.
- Is it ethical for journalists to become friendly with people they cover? To socialize with them? If Couric had more than a journalist-subject relationship with Ginsburg, then she's left herself open to criticism. Couric admits she was "a big RBG fan," though we need more information here.
- What about media outlets going easy on companies that advertise with them or whose executives speak at their events? Do outlets kill stories about politicians who could possibly influence regulation that concerns their parent company?
- What about the ethics of publications or sites accepting payment for authors or businesses to appear in their pages? Sometimes this content is labeled promotional. Not always.
- What about protection and ethics? Should journalists covering wars not publish a story that could expose soldiers to danger? Same question for those writing about intelligence issues. Is it ever ethical to report a story that puts someone's life in danger? Should the writer protect them? What about a journalist protecting a person's career? Was Bob Woodward ethical in withholding potentially life-saving information about COVID for months?
The Schefter Incident
Stemming from a trove of emails that canned Jon Gruden, Adam Schefter's incident also raises questions for PR pros. An ESPN ace reporter, Schefter admitted this week that 10 years ago he shared a pre-published story with a source.
Not coincidentally, the source was then-Washington Redskins president Bruce Allen, also Gruden's email partner. Allen is not quoted in Schefter's article by name. Schefter says he shared the copy in advance with Allen for fact-checking purposes.
The issue for PR pros: Should you request a reporter send a story pre-publication when one of your executives is quoted? What about when the executive is an unnamed source? The question for journalists: Do you comply?
In a perfect world, the answer is no. Neither PR pros nor journalists should enter into such an arrangement. In that perfect world, the journalist has time, and perhaps an intern, researcher or editor, to check facts. That perfect world may exist at a few outlets. At ESPN, 10 years ago, who knows?
A better route for Schefter: Contact Allen via phone and ask questions about the story's facts.
Veteran PR pro Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, advises against reporters offering sources they've interviewed articles in advance. However, he makes an exception when an article relates to healthcare or medical technology.
"It's important that the reporter get everything 100 percent correct. Wrong reporting could affect a reader's health decisions," he says.
Somewhat similarly, for this writer, when a source or a PR pro who's working with me for the first time asks to see a story before publication, I comply, but with a caveat: 'I might not change anything as a result of what you tell me after reading the story.'
Seth Arenstein is editor or PRNEWS and Crisis Insider. Follow him: @skarenstein