MEDIA WATCHDOG: UNION – TRIBUNE’S EXCLUSIVE WEBSITE SPONSORSHIP DEAL WITH SDG&E RAISES QUESTIONS

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Updated to include clarification from  SDG&E that its sponsorship was short-term,  not long-term.

East County Magazine

By Miriam Raftery

September 19, 2016 (San Diego) — Last week, the San Diego Union-Tribune rolled out a much-touted revamp of its website featuring San Diego Gas & Electric, a division of Sempra Energy, as its only sponsor.  The deal allows SDG&E to reach news readers directly with messages such as energy saving tips, but also poses potential conflicts of interests for San Diego’s largest newspaper.

SDG&E spokeswoman Stephanie Donovan has clarified that the sponsorship was only for two days, not an ongoing sponsorship. She added thiis perspective on the sponsorship:

“We’re always looking for innovative ways to give customers helpful information to save energy and reduce their energy costs. This unique advertising approach with the San Diego Union-Tribune gave us the opportunity to share videos, energy-efficiency tips and tools with their many online readers, who are also our customers.”

But an article in The Reader voices concerns over ads for SDG&E prominently displayed ranging from pop-up ads to advertorials that resemble news stories, though a “sponsored content” disclaimer is included.

Of greatest concern from a journalism ethics standpoint are indications that the newspaper’s heavy dependence on a single sponsor may have influenced editorial decisions in the newsroom short-term.

For example, earlier this month Sempra Energy announced a major management shakeup including replacing the company’s CEO, just hours after Sempra subsidiary SoCalGas agreed to pay $4 million in penalties for the Aliso Canyon gas leak that displaced residents in Porter Ranch, California for months.

The UT merely reported the settlement, but omitted the fact that SoCalGas is owned by Sempra, parent organization of SDG&E.  The UT further stated that the ousting of Sempra management “did not reflect any turbulence in Sempra’s boardroom,” citing financial analysts.  By contrast, other major newspapers had less rosy coverage and also gave the story more prominent placement on the front page.

The timing of SDG&E’s massive UT sponsorship comes as the utility is gearing up to battle efforts in San Diego to adopt a community choice energy program as an alternative to SDG&E for ratepayers.  While SDG&E potentially could use media placement for positive goals, such as safety information, there is also the potential to utilize media through a potential future sponsorship to try and influence public opinion on issues before regulators or legislators in the future, from rate hike proposals to net metering to responsibility for incidents such as wildfires or gas leaks.

The responsibility lies with editors to resist any suggestions from media management, corporations, labor,  or other interests to influence editorial decisions through advertising purchases.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics includes these guidelines:

  • Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.  Disclose unavoidable conflicts.(The UT did not mention its sponsorship in its coverage of issues in the news regarding its sponsor.)
  • Deny favored treatment to advertisers, donors, or any other special interests, and resist internal and external pressure to influence coverage.
  • Distinguish news from advertising, and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.
  • Prominently label sponsored content.

Sempra and SDG&E have backed other major media outlets locally with hefty donations, notably KPBS and Voice of San Diego; the latter even includes an SDG&E executive on its board. They are not alone. Corporate donations can be beneficial to community media struggling in an increasingly challenging financial marketplace.

But the larger the contribution from a single donor, as opposed to many smaller donations from a variety of sources, the higher the temptation may be for media organizations to violate ethical standards if a strict editorial firewall between advertising and newsroom decisions is not maintained.

Full disclosure:  SDG&E is a sponsor of the East County Wildfire and Emergency Alerts produced by East County Magazine, helping cover costs to keep readers safe and informed during emergencies. This sponsorship does not influence editorial content in our news department, which continues to reflect fair and unbiased journalism standards. Our policy is to disclose sponsorship in coverage of any controversy involving a sponsor, for transparency's sake. Our greatest source of funding is donations from our readers—the public whose interests we are committed to serve as nonprofit media.