Local Broadcasters Forget Journalism Ethics, Air Amazon PR Fluff Instead

from the ill-communication dept

While US journalism is certainly in crisis mode, it's particularly bad on the local level, where most local newspapers and broadcasters have been either killed off or consolidated into large corporations, often resulting in something that's less news, and more homogenized dreck (see: that Deadspin Sinclair video from a few years back). Data suggests this shift has a profoundly negative impact on the culture, resulting in fewer investigations of corruption, a more divided and less informed populace, and even swayed political outcomes as nuanced local coverage is replaced with more partisan, national news.

The latest case in point: as Amazon has faced questions about warehouse worker safety during the pandemic, the company has been pushing local news outlets to carry a gushing piece of fluff PR loosely disguised as journalism. More than 11 local broadcasters agreed to do so, and the result is... well, see for yourself:

The spot didn't just involve real reporters reading from a script Amazon provided, it included Amazon PR rep Todd Walker posing as a reporter during the segment:

"Each station introduced Walker as though he were one of their own reporters. He is, in fact, a "PR manager" at Amazon, according to his LinkedIn page. Walker used to be a broadcast journalist, according to his personal website and a sizzle reel he produced for his site."

In reality, Amazon has come under fire recently for ending $2 per hour hazard pay bonuses despite being owned by the wealthiest human being in the history of the planet, something (oddly!) not mentioned during the segments. Nor did the segment bother to mention that at least eight Amazon warehouse workers have died so far during the crisis, resulting in ample criticism from employees about the lack of personal protective equipment and adequate job safeguards. Fortunately not everybody was willing to play along with Amazon, and some journalists were clearly disgusted by the effort:

As media has gotten more consolidated, this kind of fluff has proliferated. Under Section 317 of the Communications Act, broadcasters are allowed to air PR as "news," provided they're clear about where they received the original programming from. Even then, enforcement is sporadic at best, with the last meaningful action from the FCC coming in 2011, when several broadcasters were fined a measly $4,000 for airing advertisements without adequate disclosures.

In this case, it's pretty clear that these broadcasts not only didn't inform viewers that the "news" story came and was produced by Amazon, but they falsely introduced the Amazon PR rep as a station reporter. It's also fairly clear the current Trump FCC won't do much of anything about it.

While the failure of local journalism certainly can be blamed in large part on the failure of local outlets to adapt their business models, the industry is also the victim of relentless merger mania and industry consolidation, resulting in local broadcasters that simply parrot whatever script is handed to them by corporations, politicians, or the national head office (as opposed to doing quality local investigative reporting on things that matter). To cut costs, giants like Sinclair routinely shutter local newsrooms, fire local reporters, and replace more nuanced, non-partisan local reporting with homogenized fluff.

The resulting "news deserts" are often falsely treated as an esoteric problem with an ambiguous impact, but again the data is pretty clear that the end result is a dumber and more divided public, often quite by design.

Filed Under: local news, pr, pr fluff, propaganda, todd walker, tv stations
Companies: amazon


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  • icon
    Bloof (profile), 28 May 2020 @ 6:46am

    In the UK they started running adverts for Amazon warehouse tours prior to the 'rona, after a lot of horrendous PR over their treatment of workers. I guess buying journalists is more cost effective and less disruptive than running a few warehouse shifts a week as Jurassic park with serfs instead of dinosaurs.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Dan, 28 May 2020 @ 7:42am

    When journalists decided (and J-schools started teaching) that their role was to be advocates for a cause, rather than to honestly report the news, any semblance of "journalistic ethics" died.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 28 May 2020 @ 8:12am

      Re: journalism died

      yeah, the Trump era unmasked the mass of fakers posing as principled professional journalists.

      they hated Trump so much that they could no longer conceal their longstanding and deep political bias.
      to them, abandoning journalistic principles was well worth getting rid of Trump.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Stephen T. Stone (profile), 28 May 2020 @ 8:18am

        The same could be said of the other “side”, too, y’know. Or do you sincerely believe Fox News treats Democrats/liberals/left-wingers with “fairness”?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        PaulT (profile), 28 May 2020 @ 8:20am

        Re: Re: journalism died

        How deluded do you have to be to believe that reporting Trump's own words verbatim is more biased than the constant lies that were spread during Obama's term?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Bloof (profile), 28 May 2020 @ 9:34am

        Re: Re: journalism died

        Unlike the Obama era, where you had Fox News trying to create scandals for the entire length of both terms, their hosts organising political rallies against him and gave airtime to any and all conspiracy theories no matter how racist and utterly braindead they were.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Thad (profile), 28 May 2020 @ 8:32am

      Re:

      And when was that?

      Be specific.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 May 2020 @ 8:01am

    homogenized dreck

    Assuming that local TV news has any connection whatsoever to professional journalism is a huge mistake.

    Local news is in the marketing and entertainment business, not journalism.
    (the national TV/radio news broadcasts are almost as bad)

    TV news is 95% noise -- nobody should take it seriously.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 May 2020 @ 8:42am

    The talking head nightly PR show? Yeah, that has become very tiresome - I prefer to obtain news online from various sources.

    Now there are entire thirty minute shows that try to look like the news but are only there to sell you something.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Koby (profile), 28 May 2020 @ 8:57am

    It's Spreading

    Years ago, magazine content started to dwindle, with many pages instead being filled with mostly advertisements. Some of these multi-page advertisements, of course, began to almost disguise themselves as content, appearing more like a product review. Then the concept spread to newspapers. Now it's up to TV. It's the perfect scam, to let someone else do your work for you, and yet you get paid for it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 May 2020 @ 9:39am

    Was there anything in the videos that weren't true? From what I've read, the content was true. Just because they left out information doesn't mean it wasn't true. So, as a viewer (and I don't buy from Amazon) I don't see a problem.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 28 May 2020 @ 10:04am

      Re:

      Leaving out pertinent information is as morally and ethically bankrupt as lying about that info.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 28 May 2020 @ 10:17am

      Re:

      Was there anything in the videos that weren't true?

      Yes in fact.

      "Each station introduced Walker as though he were one of their own reporters. He is, in fact, a "PR manager" at Amazon, according to his LinkedIn page.

      On a more general note there's a good reason that disclosing that someone is paying you to say something is often required, and doing so without that disclosure tends to get people in hot water.

      'We investigated company X and here's what we found' is worlds different than 'Here's what company X told us to tell you about what they're doing'. One of those might be presenting a biased image, the other absolutely is.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 28 May 2020 @ 10:27am

      Re:

      They literally said, "Let's go into the warehouse with our own cameras".

      Also, if Amazon is denying the way they treat workers, and putting on a scripted show of "real average day at warehouse", the whole thing is pretty much a lie.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      xenocrates, 3 Jun 2020 @ 9:42am

      Re:

      One thing to keep in mind is that it is deceptive. You're seeing measures in one handpicked building, while having it implied that it's in your local buildings. That isn't necessarily false, but I doubt it's true, If only because Amazon tends to pilot these programs before deploying them widely, so there is a definite lag between different buildings, and any given building may not have the spare manpower to implement a program in a timely fashion, especially if in a location where contractors or inter building travel is locked down.

      There are also multiple kinds of buildings, of multiple generations and designs, so conditions can be very different during normal operations, much less when everything is at emergency capacity, and there isn't room to put up barriers because of all the product.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 28 May 2020 @ 10:40am

    'I'm confused, are we on thew news or ad part of the channel?'

    And like that, they've utterly destroyed their credibility and trustworthiness. Running a PR fluff piece and presenting it as news shows that they are if not eager at the very least willing to act as mouthpieces to large companies(and one would assume similarly powerful individuals or groups), which brings into question any other reporting they may engage in as people will always have to ask themselves if it's just more PR rot.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ehud Gavron (profile), 28 May 2020 @ 11:02am

    Corporations, shareholders, and public companies

    ...despite being owned by the wealthiest human being in the history of the planet...

    Amazon is a public company and a corporation. Its shares of stock are owned by people, none of whom are responsible for the corporation's actions -- unless, of course, they are a director, officer, or executive.

    Whether one of Amazon's shareholders is a homeless person in LA or a rich person in NYC doesn't change the calculus.

    Pretending otherwise is disingenuous. So back to the point:

    ...despite being owned by the wealthiest human being in the history of the planet...

    Your shareholders' wealth doesn't in any way require you to do anything. Your corporate governance board, documents, oversight, and managers do.

    Stick to IT.

    E

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ehud Gavron (profile), 28 May 2020 @ 6:38pm

    Shareholders don't dictate company policies

    Shareholders get representation at the company's board. They can certainly decide what the company does or doesn't.

    No. They don't. They can get together and form committees and get majority votes and try to influence the corporation.

    At the end, it is the management that makes ALL the decisions. If there is a majority (or plurality depending on the documents) of the shareholders AT THE RIGHT TIME (usually that is at annual meeting time, although usually the corporation requires that issues be brought up 90 days in advance or forever hold your peace.)

    If you are a shareholder, and you don't like management's decision, you can try a takeover (hostile or not). This has high barriers to entry.

    But no, shareholders don't dictate company policies.

    Ehud

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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