Advertisement for a monster truck rally featuring WTSP-Ch. 10 anchors crosses ethical lines
For the first few seconds, it's easy to think you're watching a promotion for a news story on gender and driving, or a public service announcement.
"Welcome back everyone," says WTSP-Ch. 10 morning anchor Ginger Gadsden, sitting on the set where she co-hosts the 10 News Morning Show. "A new study says men are … better drivers?"
Then she drops the first clue you're not in TV news land anymore:
"That story's bull!" Gadsden announces, before extolling the skills of monster truck driver Dawn Creten.
Co-anchor Keith Jones counters with an argument for another monster truck driver, Creten's husband Jimmy. And just like that, a battle of the sexes is on.
But what's really going on is Gadsden and Jones are promoting the Advance Auto Parts Monster Jam, a motor sports event expected to draw more than 100,000 fans over two days Jan. 21 and Feb. 4 at Raymond James Stadium.
The appearance of two news anchors who are journalists in a commercial for an advertiser — pretending to discuss a study that may not exist — crosses a significant ethical line, according to several experts.
"If anything like hard news breaks out at this event, how will they cover it?" asked Jill Geisler, a former local TV news director and anchor who teaches at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, the school for journalists that owns the Tampa Bay Times.
Geisler noted that a 6-year-old boy was killed by flying debris from a malfunctioning truck at a 2009 Monster Jam event in Tacoma, Wash.
If something similar happened in Tampa, could news anchors who had appeared in commercials touting the event turn around to ask tough questions of organizers, Geisler asked.
"The credibility of anchors needs to be protected," she added. "When they become spokespeople for businesses, they lose the ability to objectively report on them."
Ken Tonning, general manager at WTSP, compared the spots to promotions anchors might record when a circus comes to town.
"We decided to partner with them in this event and wanted to do something a little different," Tonning said, noting the spot also highlights the station's ticket giveaway, which includes a grand prize winner who sits in the venue's press box. "I don't think there are any ethical issues."
When TV anchors do appear in promotional spots, it is often to tout a charity event where the station isn't making a profit.
But as the media economy grows more challenging, the Federal Communications Commission has proposed regulations requiring stations to more explicitly notify viewers when they are watching content paid for by advertisers.
WTSP and Tampa NBC affiliate WFLA-Ch. 8 have 10 a.m. talk shows with guests who paid to be featured. But those shows are hosted by personalities outside the station's newsroom and display a list of sponsors at the program's end.
Chris Rossbach, a director of event marketing and sales for Feld Entertainment, the company that presents Monster Jam events across the country, insisted the promotional agreement with WTSP wasn't intended to buy news coverage.
(Providing news coverage for advertising dollars without notifying viewers is against federal law, carrying penalties of up to $10,000 and/or one year in prison.)
Rossbach said the idea to feature Jones and Gadsden in a lighthearted, husband-and-wife-style conflict emerged in a brainstorming session with the station. The ad aired during the station's Monday telecast of syndicated show Dr. Phil and other key shows.
But he also was frank about the value of having news anchors appear in spots touting the event.
"It's a way to embed a station in the fabric of what we're doing," said Rossbach, noting that the promotion included tentative plans to have Jones and Gadsden sit in the press box with the Grand Prize winner. "When you have a sponsor, they want to put their people in front of my (audience of ) 60,000 people."
At Tampa ABC affiliate WFTS-Ch. 28, general manager Rich Pegram said his station is so concerned about ensuring commercials don't look like newscasts he sometimes asks local advertisers to change the wording in their spots to avoid confusion.
WFTS does run ads for the Monster Jam and gave away tickets last year, but has not considered featuring news anchors in promotional advertisements, Pegram said.
Back in 2010, the station disciplined seven staffers, firing two, after a fake newscast video they assembled as a joke hit Facebook and YouTube.
"The line (separating advertising from news) is a real line, and we try to adhere to it," said Pegram. "We know we have one shot at credibility, and when it's gone, it's gone."