Are plugs for pizza a breach of journalistic ethics?

Talking (pizza) head or journalist? Nick Lehr/The Conversation via

Between them, ESPN’s Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen have amassed more than six million Twitter followers. All were doubtless fascinated to learn that the two sports journalists planned to watch football and eat pizza on New Year’s Eve.

At first glance, Schefter’s and Mortensen’s tweets appear to be the usual social media sludge, like your Facebook friend’s photo of the blueberry muffins she baked this morning.

But Schefter and Mortensen didn’t just say they intended to eat pizza. They specified whose pizza they intended to eat. (I’m withholding the name of their pizza provider on the grounds that the company has gotten enough free publicity from this little affair already. For the purposes of this discussion let’s call them Big Pizza.)

There are two possible explanations for these tweets:

  1. In an amazing coincidence, Schefter and Mortensen were seized by the same unsolicited, spontaneous urge to share their enthusiasm for Big Pizza.

  2. The tweets were plugs, which is to say, paid endorsements. It should be obvious that the correct explanation is B, but it wasn’t nearly obvious enough: the tweets weren’t labeled as ads.

A few days ago, Deadspin called them on it. The Wall Street Journal followed up. Both news outlets pointed out that the Federal Trade Commission frowns on such nondisclosures. The coverage prompted apologies from ESPN and Big Pizza.

“It was a mistake,” said Big Pizza.

From a journalism ethics standpoint, this isn’t exactly Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass territory. (Blair, writing for The New York Times, and Glass, writing for the New Republic, were banished from newsrooms forever for passing off fiction as fact.)

Compared to the gross conflict of interest at the very heart of ESPN’s existence, the New Year’s pizza tweets are the tiniest of blips. (The media conglomerate purports to offer unbiased news coverage of the very leagues they pay hundreds of millions of dollars to for broadcasting rights.)

In fact, the usual conflict of interest concerns barely apply: journalists are told not to take money from outside entities lest their impartiality be compromised – or appear to be compromised – if ever they are called upon to report on those entities. But there’s little chance of a sports journalist ever being asked to dig up dirt on Big Pizza.

A credibility problem festers here nonetheless. As a reporter, I’m expected to name people and organizations only when they’re relevant to what I’m reporting. If I toss in a reference to a person or organization as a favor, or because I’m a friend, or for a fee, it calls into question all my choices of who and what to name, just as using one staged or digitally altered news photograph calls into question the legitimacy of all other news photos: how is the audience to know whether an image is real or fake, whether a story is newsworthy or promotional?

Some might say that any discussion of journalism ethics is moot when it comes to ESPN’s “personalities” because they’re not really journalists at all. Or if they are, they’ve clearly taken off their journalistic fedoras and put on their party hats when they tell their Twitter followers their exciting plans for New Year’s Eve.

This, we’re told, is the mashed-up world in which we all must live: Everyone glides from platform to platform in a seamless meld of news, gossip and marketing.

Well here’s the fuddy-duddy view. First, Schefter and Mortensen most assuredly are journalists. Both had distinguished careers at respected newspapers before coming to ESPN. Mortensen has won a George Polk Award, which is to the Pulitzer Prize as a Golden Globe Award is to the Oscars.

And if you’re a journalist, you’re always a journalist. There’s no going “off-duty.” If I’m covering Donald Trump on the campaign trail for The New York Times, I can’t blog, tweet or yammer on a TV talk show about what a blowhard he is. Anything I say in any of those contexts becomes a prism through which my work for The New York Times will be judged.

Disclosure of the Big Pizza tweets as ads would have solved the problem of the audience not knowing when Schefter and Mortensen are speaking for themselves and when they’re speaking as paid pitchmen.

But a cheesiness problem remains. Surely ESPN pays these guys enough that if Big Pizza comes calling, they should have no trouble saying, “No thanks.”