The issue drew attention last week in a Wall Street Journal story on how product experts-the technology editor at Gruner & Jahr's Child, the editor in chief of Hachette's Popular Photography & Imaging, the tech editor of NBC's "Today"-received money through sponsors whose products they touted in interviews on local TV.
It's not a new issue. NBC took heat in 2002 when Lauren Bacall promoted a drug on "Today"-with no mention she was paid by Novartis. Networks tightened disclosure rules since then. Local stations have varying disclosure rules. But the system is not working. Viewers have every reason to be skeptical whether proffered advice is honest or paid for-and another reason to turn off the tube.
In the end, all parties are culpable: the experts and celebrities, for deception; TV stations and networks, for weak implementation of disclosure standards; marketers, for supporting a dishonest practice; the magazines, if they knew about the practice but looked the other way.
What to do? Boot offending journalists and make ethics policies clear to everyone inside and outside, for starters. (G&J, to its credit, has severed ties with Child's tech editor.) TV stations and networks also need to get written disclosure about endorsements from all on-air guests and communicate that to viewers. The Federal Communications Commission this month called for such audience disclosure when TV outlets run video news releases. The same disclosure must apply to experts and celebrities who shill for products on news and talk shows.
Both VNRs and interviews offered by experts on a hidden sponsor's payroll make for cheap and easy content-at the price of damaged credibility. The entire TV business needs to stamp out these dismal practices before more viewers tune out.