Journalism Ethics 101
Jazz journalists don’t sell their influence to musicians
A jazz journalist does not offer a positive review of an artist for the artist or their producers’ money. A jazz journalist should not sell information which is readily available to the general public under the guise of providing an introduction. A journalist’s client is their publication, and the publication’s interest is in its advertisers and general audience, not serving to advance the agendas of the people it covers.
These basics of journalistic ethical conduct bear repeating as baseless accusations of impropriety and genuine infringements pop up on the internet. For instance, bassist Arturo Mora recently blogged that he had “evidence” that Jazz Times asks musicians to “buy” reviews. An unnamed reviewer had responded to Mora’s sample cd with an email including the following paragraph:
I work independently, but I will get all of the articles published myself, guaranteed. Because some of JazzTimes‘ online articles do get printed in their magazine, that possibility does lie open. I like your music so the articles will be positive, should you decide to do this. My rates are below.
The presumed writer offered several “packages” of positive coverage, at different rates for inclusion of reviews and/or interviews in JT and or Ink 19. Upon learning of this proposal, JazzTimes’ editor/publisher Lee Mergner was quick to deny the writer has any authorized connection with the magazine or its website, but instead was trying to take advantage of do-it-yourself musician-cd producers by charging for posts to JT’s open editorial “community” platform.
In a statement to JJANews, Mergner explained:
Over the last several months, a few musicians have brought this disreputable practice to my attention and I’ve made it clear that this is not a practice that we endorse in any way. What is going on is that we have a community section in which people can post articles, news, listings, photos and, yes, reviews: http://jazztimes.com/community/articles Although there is a great deal of self-promotion in this section, the end result is an open forum format in keeping with the egalitarian nature of the jazz community. This community section is very different from the rest of jazztimes.com, in which we have a ton of assigned and edited content, including reviews assigned by our editors to our ongoing contributors, many of whom are JJA members.
Leave it to some enterprising folks to use the open forum opportunity of the Community section to take advantage of emerging artists. I have been trying to nip these in the bud by deactivating users who have been shown to be abusing the system, but it can be difficult to regulate. Nonetheless, I will continue to pursue these folks, like a modern day Columbo.
The notion of Mergner as a shambling, trench-coated investigator may be hard to conjure, but his dismay is easy to imagine. Any critics’ contribution to an arts discussion is only as good as their insight+ taste + honesty, and if those aspects of one’s work are swayed by payment from those whose work is being judged, the result is not journalism but, at best, public relations. If positive reviews are paid for and posted without disclosure of the arrangement in an editorial guise, the result verges on fraud.
Doing straight out promotional work for an artist is not preferred work but not necessarily taboo for jazz journalists, who have historically supplemented low pay for articles and reviews with the writing of press releases (usually unsigned) and analytic liner notes (typically, signed). True, journalists walk a fine line when committed their time to think about and write up what are almost inevitably positive opinions of a new release they’re commissioned to annotate, yet master jazz journalists including the late Stanley Dance, Martin Williams and Whitney Balliet, very lively Nat Hentoff, Dan Morgenstern and Ira Gitler have given their energies to essays published as part of record packages (complete disclosure: this writer has done it too, often).
This practice is frowned on and sometimes banned by publishers who employ their jazz critics full-time, but freelancers consider themselves lucky to establish another outlet for their views on music, especially as good liner notes for good recordings have long lives, attached as they are to original releases of enduring projects. The endorsement of a recording by its annotator is generally taken by readers as a matter of course, though that endorsement may be explicit or implicit (and sometimes, through clever use of language, withheld or subtly contradicted). Nevertheless, expectations of readers of liner notes are not the same as assumptions of impartiality attached to journalistic enterprises.
Another journalistic no-no that’s been reported of late is the sale of editors’ and publishers’ emails and/or postal addresses to musicians, with the seller suggesting that such information is privileged and amounts to a personal recommendation that can lead to coverage. Most editors and writers in the jazz world maintain some sort of public contact information which musicians can access using a search engine and a little ingenuity. While selling such info is marginally acceptable — many organizations, including the Jazz Journalists Association — have sold or leant mailing lists for a fee — the best practice is to urge musicians to compile their own lists from available resources, to offer professional consultations on a reasonable, verifiable fee basis, and to refrain from commending particular artists for coverage unless one is, oneself, willing to do the critical work required. And if that willingness is based on a payment from the musician, it amounts to little more than a fix based on a bribe.
Jazz journalists are, on the whole, an uncorrupted lot. They tend to be idealists who do what they do for love as much as money, whine about that though they may. Payments for legitimate jazz journalism are always low, and the value of a review on the marketplace is unpredictable and dubious. This is true even if the review is a rave, and whether or not it’s the result of an enviably high fee. Hard-pressed journalists may be tempted to develop creative new ways to make money on the basis of their expertise and access, but respectable writers, broadcasters, photographers and new media professionals to not trade in their hard-won reputations for a few dollars more, soliciting bribes from people they purport to unsuspecting audiences to really and truly enjoy. Jazz journalists in any medium depend on their sensitivities to sound, their knowledge, analytical skills and abilities to communicate. They may sell those to the highest bidder — all to the good if the bidders are publishers who will advance their opinions as editorially vetted. If jazz journalists open the market for their opinions to those they have opinions of, they are simply sophists, and their “work” adds not to the light, but to the noise.
Mergner also wrote:
I am very proud of our contributors, who work hard to maintain the highest level of professionalism in the face of diminishing revenue streams. No one on our masthead would pull such a stunt [as selling reviews to musicians] and that should be red flag to artists or labels who are pitched for this sort of coverage. If they [people doing the pitching] ’re not on our masthead, then they’re not likely to be professional contributors to the magazine or website.
So musicians: Beware the non-professional, unauthorized contributor, especially if he or she comes forward asking to be paid for creating work that they promise will be favorable and guarantee they can get placed just where you want it. These people are after your money and the stray readers’ gullibility. They aren’t reviewers, and what they’re offering isn’t journalism.
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