When is a "Readers' Choice" contest...not a "Readers' Choice" contest?
When the organization putting on the contest fails to involve objective dis-interested parties in the counting of the entries and puts out advertising that is designed to fool readers into thinking it's news.
For several years now, the local newspaper has put on what it calls a "Readers Choice" contest. It publishes a two-page list of more than 120 categories for people to nominate their favorite businesses as winners. It prints this contest several times so that people can cut them out, fill them in, and submit them. In case readers don't have personal knowledge of any businesses in some of the categories, the newspaper sells ad space to would-be nominees on the edges of the contest pages themselves. Convenient, huh?
Folks who enter have to fill in a certain number of categories and they have to give a name and an address.
Those are pretty much the rules.
Some weeks later, the newspaper prints a special section with stories about the winning businesses. It just so happens that all of the businesses featured in this special section have also purchased advertising to go along with those stories that are printed on the very same page.
I know a lot of the people who were named as winners in this year's contest. They are all good people and they're good at what they do. Many of them were probably surprised and pleased when they found out they had been named winners. But there are several things about this so-called contest that ought to be troubling to anyone who cares about journalism and objectivity.
1. There is nothing that lets you know that the only businesses about whom articles appear in the special supplement are the ones who purchased ad space from the newspaper. Out of more than 120 separate categories that people could vote on, fewer than 50 winners appear in this special supplement.
2. There's nothing that tells you that the space for the stories has been set aside only because those business agreed to advertise. If you don't advertise, you don't get a story. The FCC requires TV stations to tell viewers when certain content that looks like news is paid for or sponsored by a business or when content is provided by a profit-making third party. Newspapers are not bound by any such rules. But you'd think a newspaper would AT LEAST put the words "An advertising supplement" on its "Reader's Choice" publication so that people would know. But the newspaper knows that if it accurately labeled the special supplement as "advertising," the small number of people who bother to read it, would be even smaller.
3. Who wrote all of the stories in the special supplement? If they were news-writers, shame on the newspaper for diverting them from the work they ought to be doing which is covering and writing about local people and local news. If the articles were largely submitted by the businesses themselves, shame on the newspaper for not sharing that information with its readers.
4. Who decides who the winners are? Is it an independent accounting firm that receives all of the entries directly through the mail, counts them, and delivers the final results to the newspaper? Apparently not. It is apparently just newspaper staffers who get the entries and count them. Even if they do a fair and decent job, shouldn't an independent third party be involved to make sure there's not even an appearance of impropriety? For a publication that is always railing about access to public records and the sunshine law, it smacks of hypocrisy to hold a "contest" in which untold persons within the newspaper itself are counting the entries and deciding the winners. Heck, even in its cookbook contest, an outsider usually helps decide the winner. Why not in this case?
5. I have personally heard stories from past winners who bragged about "stuffing the ballot box." Who can blame them? There's nothing in the rules that says you can't and no one is checking the entries to see if they are duplicative.
6. There are several goofy or redundant categories that make you wonder what's going on. For example, Suddenlink won for "best satellite or cable company." First of all, Suddenlink is NOT a satellite company. Why not have a separate category so that folks could vote for whichever of the two satellite companies, DirecTV or DISH, they hate LESS.
Speaking of Suddenlink, that cable company serves about 70% of all of the cable households in the Mid-Ohio Valley. Many thousands of more homes receive TV free over-the-air or via satellite. And there are a number of cable systems that serve thousands of more homes, too. But it's kind of embarrassing when a company the size of Suddenlink brags about being named the winner when most people don't have a choice as to which cable company they can subscribe. The only thing more embarrassing would be for the newspaper to announce that it had won the category for "Best Source for News." Oh wait, the newspaper has done that before!
7. Another goofy example: Best Mobile Home Manufacturer was deemed to be Bob's Mobile Homes. I've known the folks at Bob's Quality Homes (the correct name) for many years and I know they do a lot of things to help their customers and their community. But they do NOT "manufacture" mobile homes. They sell, service and install them, and do a great job. But they do NOT build them.
8. Why no category for best TV station? There's one for favorite radio station. Why not a category for TV? Maybe it's because TV is too much of a competitor for the newspaper. Hey folks in radio, there's a message for you. Newspaper must not think you're much competition. They don't mind throwing you a bone every once in a while.
If there were a category for TV, I'd like to hope that many readers would select WTAP. I'd also like to hope that an objective tally of the entries would show that to be the case. But I won't hold my breath waiting for either of these things to occur.
The long-established print media in this country are under attack from all sides, particularly from newer technologies. Those newer technologies include television, radio, the internet, smart phones that can send and receive news, weather, and text messages, and many other new devices.
If this were an objectively judged contest with proper safeguards to limit each "voter" to one "vote," and with proper disclosure to readers about the "advertising" nature of the contest, then I would applaud the newspaper's effort as a great money-making idea.
But when a long-established medium, such as a community newspaper, blurs the line between what is "news" and what is "advertising" in a so-called "Readers' Choice" awards program like the one carried out locally, it performs a dis-service to the community it pretends to serve.