Jonathan Snowden wrote an incredibly thoughtful article about ethics in MMA media, and journalism more broadly. What Snowden points out is just how arbitrary the lines of ethics often are in reporting. I have another point.
The ethical lines in reporting are changing, because they cannot be sustained. Look, I’m an ad agency demon who flits into the press core sometimes, normally with a disclaimer that most of my income is from an ad agency and not writing. But I know as much about the media industry as most working reporters.
Most members of the press are just a few steps down the ad dollar hall from me. Advertisers who pay for ads hire firms like mine to manage that spend. Those firms send money to ad tech companies who take a cut, and in turn share a cut of that money with publishers, who dole out fees to reporters. It’s a pyramid scheme of sorts.
Snowden asks what’s the difference between receiving thousands of dollars of free tickets to cover events (ethically fine) and receiving free hotel rooms (ethically compromised)?
The answer is obfuscation. It’s morally a-okay to have a publication’s accounting department pay for hotel rooms with ad dollars from the event the journalists are covering, but skip a step, and it’s over.
The outlets often have no claim that money from event advertising isn’t the money used to fund the travel expenses of reporters. In the modern media economy, a tentpole event, like a large boxing match, can account for half or more of the monthly revenue for small niche media outlets.
When fewer media outlets, with broader coverage areas and a diverse pool of direct advertisers created certainty of profits clear-cut ethical lines were easier to draw. Media is now a meat grinder. Even if coverage ethics are unchanged, the steps to maintain the unambiguous appearance of propriety are not in budget for most in the space.
I’ve followed with some interest the internal debate of a professional journalism society I used to be an active part of in olden times. It’s a group of MMA media members, some of whom you’ve definitely heard of and most of whom you certainly have not. Without violating any confidences, I think it’s safe to report they are dealing with an issue plaguing journalism generally these days—where are the lines, what constitutes unethical behavior and what, if anything, can a media member’s peers do to enforce industry standards?