I was in the media for more than 30 years and the first rule is PR and journalism don’t mix. If you want to do PR, you leave journalism. Simple.
In 2011, I was a consumer reporter at CTV and was offered a job as Premier Christy Clark’s press secretary.
When I accepted the position I told CTV immediately, even though the job didn’t start for two weeks, and that brought my TV career to an abrupt end. My story for that night was cancelled; I was allowed to thank all the great people I worked with, clean out my desk and record a 20 second thank you to viewers.
I offered to continue to work off-air for two weeks before I started with government, to assist a new reporter stepping into my old role and CTV politely declined. Its rules were strict and I applaud them.
At CTV, we signed a document which spelled out potential conflicts and the consequences which were dire and immediate. All CTV personnel knew the rules and many like me made career choices.
It appears Toronto Global TV anchor and executive editor Leslie Roberts didn’t make that difficult choice.
According to a Toronto Star investigation, Roberts is the co-owner and creative director of a Toronto PR company BuzzPR and some BuzzPR clients appeared on his show. The Star disclosed Roberts tweeted about some clients to his more than 19 thousand followers and other clients appeared in Global news stories produced by other reporters. In fairness, some of those clients also got stories on other TV stations, which legitimizes their news value.
Global news has suspended Roberts indefinitely while it investigates the allegations.
Roberts’ says he never received direct payment from any client for appearing on his newscasts and never took a salary from BuzzPR, but those clients did pay BuzzPR of which he is a part-owner. He told The Star he went to BuzzPR everyday and conducted media training for clients and helped write media pitches. He told The Star he is resigning from Buzz PR effective immediately.
Global viewers trust the news they see. Primarily they trust that there is a separation between the journalist and businesses or guests featured on news programs. They trust that the people they see interviewed, particularly those playing an “expert” role, are chosen for what they know and not who they know.
How would those viewers have felt if full disclosure had been made such as “my next guest is an expert in widgets and his widget firm is a client of the public relations company of which I am a part-owner and creative director.”
Critics of the media have often charged that advertisers or others use their financial clout to influence the news. In my experience those critics are wrong. I was never prevented from doing any story that positioned an advertiser in a bad light. On occasion, my stories in radio and TV cost my employers a good client and a lot of money, but as an old boss at CKNW used to tell businesses “buying advertising is not news insurance.”
Also no sales person ever suggested to me that I should do a story on a particular business that was an advertiser. We kept sales and news separate. Roberts is a veteran award-winning journalist. He should have known that what he was doing at the very least had the appearance of a conflict of interest.
If we accept his word that at no time did he cross a line, that he was surprised when BuzzPR clients appeared on his show or elsewhere on Global news and that he had nothing to do with those appearances, that still does not explain other findings of The Star investigation: his tweets supporting BuzzPR clients and an apparent positive ad-lib on air about a client with a coupon app.
In my opinion, Roberts had a duty to viewers to disclose any conflicts and he failed in that duty.
Back in September reporter Charlo Greene of KTVA-TV in Alaska famously quit live on air as she disclosed she was the owner of a medical marijuana business, Alaska Cannabis Club, which she had just finished doing a story on.
Greene’s conflict is direct, Roberts’ is one step removed. Both are serious, in my opinion. Roberts’ credibility as a journalist has been irreparably harmed. I fear the reputations of his clients may be in danger of being tarnished as well because the public may wonder if the reason they got airtime was because of the Roberts connection. That would be unfortunate.