Can journos be bought?

As a journalist, I realise that I rank somewhere up there amongst politicians, used car salesmen and bank managers in terms of the public’s love and trust. Blaming “The Meeja” is a popular pastime in today’s culture, and while I occupy a small sub-niche of the kind of “Meeja” that’s usually vilified, there’s still certainly no shortage of accusations of bias, being bought out by companies, or simply being on the take. You’ve only got to look at, for example, the controversy surrounding the departure of Jeff Gerstmann from Gamespot to see a ton of “Oh, but journos are always bought and paid for” style rhetoric, no matter what the reality might be.
Of course, it doesn’t help if that other bastion of public trust, PR, sticks their oars in and tries to directly subvert the role of the IT media. I’m mildly steaming at the moment over a particular issue, and sadly not too surprised that it isn’t a lone one. Here’s a couple of recent examples — and by recent, I mean they’ve happened in the last two weeks — all of which do absolutely nothing to advance the cause of IT Media professionalism (or perceived professionalism) whatsoever, and undeniably do plenty of harm. I’ve not named names here for a very simple reason. Some of the information has come my way secondhand, and I could be mistaken somewhere that could cost me money. Or in other words, I’m a sole business operator and parent of three children, and I don’t quite feel like getting sued by a churlish company or three. Anyway, in the past couple of weeks, companies that I know of have…

  1. Launched an ad campaign featuring quotes from an “experienced” IT journalist, extolling the virtues of their company. Closer inspection revealed that said journalist isn’t in fact an Australian-based (or Australian published) journalist at all. There’s no indication that this is a foreign ad, or admission as such; there’s no real way to check the journalist’s bona fides at all. But the fact that the “journalist” identifies himself as such directly promotes the idea that IT journos can be bought outright.
  2. At a recent product launch, a company stated that the “best” three reviews of a given product would “win” that product. Frankly, a big red flashing sign saying “FREE BRIBES! C’MON! YOU KNOW YOU WANT TO!! ALL THE COOL KIDS ARE TAKING THE BRIBES!!” might have been more palatable. It would have at least saved time.

Now, to clarify; yes, I have been offered, and taken the odd free product in my time. It’s a perk of the job — as I was told upon entering Journalism, nobody ever got rich doing IT journalism for somebody else, and I reckon that’s still true — but never as the result of a review — or at least not to the best of my knowledge. There’s a world of difference between, say, a door prize given randomly, and a direct attempt to influence the reviews of a product, and I think it’s sad that this wasn’t realised upfront by those organising the event.
Even the post-review process isn’t immune to this kind of meddling, although it has to be said that it’s more often than not vendors, rather than PR, who seem to pipe up here. I have had numerous vendors threaten legal action, or to pull advertising accounts as the result of what I’ve written, and for the most part, my publishers have stood up to them, well aware that the paying public is, at the end of the day, more valuable than a single advertiser. Lose the public trust — as seems to have happened as a result of the Gamespot case cited above — and you lose your market wholesale. That’s what I particularly dislike about both the “false” IT journo approach, and the offer of a free product before anyone’s even had a chance to evaluate it — even if you did write an honest review and were offered the product afterwards, the mud of being perceived as taking a bribe still sticks pretty solidly.
If nothing else, I suspect this particular release of bile — and for what it’s worth, I’m well aware that Dan Warne blogged in a similar style some months ago on the perks of IT Journalism, right here — might reveal who in the PR community actually tracks this blog. I know some of you do — but which ones are willing to stand up and be counted?

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