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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Candidate Running for BART Board Buys Bold Italic Journalist's "Endorsement" (Update)

Posted By on Tue, Nov 4, 2014 at 2:36 PM

click to enlarge A sponsored endorsement of Nick Josefowitz from the Bold Italic may confuse voters today. - VIA THE BOLD ITALIC
  • Via the Bold Italic
  • A sponsored endorsement of Nick Josefowitz from the Bold Italic may confuse voters today.

As voters head to the polls today, candidates running for office have spent mountains of money to put their message in front of people's eyeballs. Candidates spend bucks on pounds of mailers, TV ads, and grassroots organizers. 

Now in San Francisco, candidates can even buy journalists. 

The Bold Italic's blog post Monday  "Tomorrow: Late Night BART Could Be Even Closer," is seemingly an endorsement of BART board candidate Nick Josefowitz.

From the post:

Tomorrow, November 4, we have a chance to change the way we get around the bay and to get someone in office who wants to deliver late-night transportation for San Franciscans. And if you ask me, it’s about time for some new, fresh minds to tackle these problems. I’ll definitely be voting for Josefowitz this election.

The race between Nick Josefowitz and long-time incumbent (and Republican) James Fang has been a strange one. Josefowitz is backed by floods of cash, but Fang has the backing of labor unions, because he stood with them during the BART strikes. The SF Examiner (who I write for) and the San Francisco Chronicle have both made endorsements in the race. 

So what's so different about the Bold Italic's ringing endorsement? Nothing is amiss until you keep scrolling down the screen. In small print at the bottom of the post is a sentence that changes the whole tenor of the piece: "This post was paid for by Josefowitz for BART Board 2014. It is not necessarily an endorsement by The Bold Italic."

Josefowitz bought an endorsement on the Bold Italic. It's like seeing a movie review of X-Men: First Class paid for by Marvel Comics. Once money changes hands, can you trust what you're reading? 

The National Society of Professional Journalists publishes a code of ethics many journalists adhere to as a professional Ten Commandments. The code addresses this:

Act Independently

The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.

Journalists should:

– Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.

– Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.

– Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; do not pay for access to news. Identify content provided by outside sources, whether paid or not.

– 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.

And though there is a pink ribbon at the top of the post that says "sponsored," in bold, the post was attention-getting enough to garner a link on Reddit/r/SanFrancisco, where one commenter proclaimed "Bout fucking time." 

We gather the commenter did not catch on that the post was paid for by Josefowitz. If one reader didn't realize the endorsement was paid for by the endorsee, how many more people didn't, either?

The endorsement writer, Jules Suzdaltsev, is a local freelance news journalist who also writes news for VICE. He said he only wrote the piece because he believes in Josefowitz's promise of late-night trains.

"I read about the guy and he seemed like a good progressive choice for BART," he told SF Weekly. "I read up on the other guy, his name escapes me right now. It seemed like a worthwhile thing to write and I pitched it."

Above, a debate between candidates Josefowitz and Fang about BART's future via Streetsblog San Francisco.

But something he said perked my ears. Did Suzdaltsev just say he didn't know the name of the other BART board candidate? "I don't have his stuff in front  of me right now, I'm outside. If I could take a look i'd look at that," Suzdaltsev said. "I forget (his name) right now."

He endorsed Josefowitz without knowing the name of his opponent, James Fang, who has been on the board for over two decades.

Suzdaltsev says he was paid his usual freelance fee for his article (the campaign paid the Bold Italic which paid the reporter). It should be noted that work for freelance journalists is scarce, and the pay is often low.

And Suzdaltsev is not alone. SFist, the aggregation-heavy local (and not so local) blog, also published their own Josefowitz advertising-news-blog-turducken.

It's a growing trend. Former SPJ President and now SPJ ethics committee member Fred Brown told us posts like the ones at Bold Italic and SFist sponsored endorsement are happening more and more, as disturbing as that may be.

"I think impartiality is important for a journalist's credibility," Brown said. "But there is an unfortunate growing movement in journalism, that as long as people know where you're coming from, it's okay [to be paid]." 

"It's like being paid for a favorable review of a restaurant, or the like. It's not alright. Conflicts of interest remove any chance of being seen as an impartial observer. It is a detriment to the reputation a journalist, who should try to achieve impartiality," he added. 

"In this case I would say the fact that money changes hands changes the nature of it," Brown said. "That makes it more unethical." 

Update: This post's headline was changed to be more accurate. The Josefowitz team paid The Bold Italic to produce the sponsored content. The BI then paid the freelance writer. 

Bold Italic Editor Jennifer Maerz said she wants to make it clear the Bold Italic was not making an endorsement, rather providing sponsored content:  A comment from her:

"The Bold Italic has long had native/sponsored content as one of our offerings, and it's never been something we hide from our readers. In fact, all sponsored stories, including this Nick Josefowitz piece, are very clearly marked as 'sponsored.'" This piece in particular has a bright pink 'sponsored' banner at the top and another note at the bottom clearly stating the piece was paid for by the candidate and isn't necessarily an endorsement by The Bold Italic. Native/sponsored content is nothing new in digital media.

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Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

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