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Advertiser Pressure on Newspapers Is Common: Survey; More Than 90% Have Been Pressured but Only One-Third Have Caved In

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Advertiser Pressure on Newspapers Is Common: Survey; More Than 90% Have Been Pressured but Only One-Third Have Caved In

Article excerpt

More than 90% have been pressured but only one-third have caved in

ADVERTISERS HAVE PRESSURED more than 90% of.U.S. newspapers to change or kill stories, a recent study by Marquette University's Department of Journalism found. The same number of newspapers have had advertisers threaten to withdraw or withdrew advertising over reporting of news or feature stories.

However only one-third of those newspapers caved in to those pressures, the study found.

Conducted by Lawrence C. Soley, Colnik Professor of Communication at the Wisconsin University, and Robert L. Craig, a former Marquette professor now teaching at the University of Ulster, the survey polled 250 daily newspaper editors.

Approximately 60% of the editors returned and completed the eight-question mail survey, indicating a high interest in this issue. The average return rate of a mail survey is between 10% to 25%, with 30% regarded as the minimum acceptable response rate needed to give a survey validity.

Out of the sampled newspapers, 46.4% had circulations under 25,000 and 53.6% had circulations exceeding 25,000.

The study was conducted in the wake of several highly publicized attempts by advertisers to pressure news media. At the Duluth (Minn.) News-Tribune, a consumer affairs reporter was dismissed after writing a column that angered real estate advertisers. In Minneapolis, Minn., television stations refused to air commercials critical of Northern States Power Co., a frequent advertiser, after having received calls from a power company representative.

Ninety-three point two percent of editors responded that an advertiser had threatened to withdraw advertising from the newspaper because of the content of news stories. In a follow-up question, 89% said that the advertisers had followed through on their threats.

While only a third of the editors surveyed (36.7%) reported that advertisers succeeded in influencing news or features in their newspapers, a breakdown of the responses show that small- circulation papers are much more likely to cave in to advertiser pressures than large metropolitan dailies. Only 15% of editors reported that their newspapers seldom run stories that criticize or offend advertisers.

More than half (55.1%) report pressure from within their newspaper to write or tailor news stories to please advertisers.

The study cites several anecdotal evidence about advertising effects on news information. In 1986, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner documented the wide-spread practice of short weighting and overcharging customers by Southern California grocery stores. Ralphs, one of the regions largest supermarket chains, canceled its $250,000 advertising contract with the paper. Although the report caused the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to launch an investigation of supermarket pricing practices, the Los Angeles Times never picked up the story.

Other reports of auto dealers' attempts to control news reporting about automobiles at a number of U.S. newspapers, and pressures on newspapers from builders and realtors, were published in the Washington Journalism Review. Real estate reporters and editors, "tired of the constant, grinding and time-consuming bitch calls from agents and builders" began to censor themselves, the study reports. Some newspaper publishers have even handed real estate sections over to their advertising departments, making them public relations kits for the industry, the study adds.

The study was begun so systematically collected evidence could determine whether the anecdotes were typical experiences. …

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