In an era of “fake news” taunts, with the credibility of journalists under assault from all angles, KITV made a mistake in arranging to send its anchors and reporters on sponsored cruises this fall and beyond.

Even News Director Mike Darrah acknowledged ethical concerns with the Ultimate Getaways deal.

“This came from the former regime, over my objections,” he said. “I refused to approach the anchors about it, and when (those employees) came to me, to talk about it, I still advised against it. It was a battle, and, frankly, it was one I lost.”

So when you see images of smiling anchors Paula Akana and Robert Kekaula and reporter Jordan Segundo connected to sales pitches for cruises, starting this month, and continuing around the winter holidays, you also should know about the newsroom angst behind those advertisements and promotions.

Most of the time, it’s not a journalist’s job to be a passenger aboard a cruise ship.

David Spinks/Flickr.com

Darrah said KITV’s on-air talent are not pitchmen; they are journalists, maintaining editorial independence in the classic sense of that title. They did not seek out these cruises as a job perk, he said, and they are treating them as work assignments, in which they represent KITV at a sponsored event.

They said they feel like they have little choice, within the agreement made by upper management, to either do the job requested or resign in protest. They are not resigning.

With the aired promotions, Darrah said the newsroom controls the content given to viewers. For example, as part of the negotiations, Akana’s photo is shown in the ads but she does not voice the promotional text. No one is being asked to perform on the cruises. The journalists don’t get a percentage or cut from the total amount of cruises sold.

From Darrah’s perspective, those are some of the compromises they can tolerate.

Watching the videos, though, of the offers (starting at $4,199 per person), reveals little in the way of journalistic content as separate from what I’d consider advertising sales rhetoric. When asked about KITV’s interests in reporting of controversial issues related to cruise lines — such as dumping oily bilge at sea, drug smuggling, getting stuck adrift without power, equipment failures or worse — Darrah acknowledged that he cannot remember any KITV story like that. He declined to predict future KITV coverage.

KITV is more a part of the evolving journalism pack than an anomaly.

This lack of curiosity about the negatives associated with a business, in a cruise-ship city — fueled by an underlying conflict of interest with an advertiser — is reminiscent of the hands-off approach most newspapers provide their local auto dealers, who advertise heavily in their pages.

Instead of routinely investigating practices, like they do with other industries, newspapers usually publish from the perspective of the dealers, not the customers (favoring advertisers over readers). At the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, for example, you can find stories about a “fabulous year” and a “strong outlook” in the industry but scant information, say, about sketchy sales techniques or problem dealers in the area.

KITV offers a different sponsored segment, called “HI Velocity,” with Maleko McDonnell, about auto fantasies, along with other “sponsored content,” such as “Aging Well.” It has taken serious ethical shortcuts before, such as when it allowed the Hawaii Visitors & Convention Bureau to pay for its reporters to follow Gov. Linda Lingle on a Japanese cultural exchange (after public outcry in the journalism community, KITV paid the costs back).

But KITV is more a part of the evolving journalism pack than an anomaly. The New York Times also sells cruises, and other types of luxury adventures, sometimes with reporters, columnists, or even the publisher. These types of backroom deals have become common in just about every market.

“I don’t know if this is blurring the lines (between advertising and editorial content) or just a changing industry,” Darrah said. “The viewers are going to have to make up their own minds about the perception it creates.”

Such arrangements directly conflict with the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which prescribes avoiding conflicts of interest (real or perceived) and to “refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment … that may compromise integrity and impartiality, or may damage credibility.” As far as I can tell from searching KITV’s website, it does not publicly adhere to those standards or proclaim a particular code of conduct.

From the perspective of the journalist, working within an organization, being asked to do a job like this (and, it’s not that unpleasant of a thing to do), these KITV personnel are taking it as an assignment.

“When your boss asks you to do this, you do this, I guess,” Kekaula said.

Before being promoted to an anchor, Kekaula worked for more than 20 years as a sports reporter, traveling often, especially to University of Hawaii games. Because of all of that time on the road, he said he doesn’t like to travel anymore.

Yet he also has taken small parts in television shows before, which he didn’t consider a conflict of interest but others in the industry have questioned. Kekaula said he was open-minded about the cruise partnership but not eager to pursue it.

“I know I’m not a part-time sales person,” he said. “I’ve never let anyone use me as a sales prop. I would not let anybody take advantage of me like that.”

Akana, who said she will celebrate her 35th year in the news business this December during the same month she will be on the KITV cruise on the Danube River in Europe, acknowledged that she initially was upset at the request. “It didn’t feel right, in the gut,” she said. “I’ve never done anything like this.”

Akana said she recognizes that the news industry, especially broadcast news, is evolving (or devolving) toward more of a blend of entertainment and news. The station made the deal with the cruise lines without consulting with her. She felt like she had few options in this case.

“I voiced my opinion,” she said. “I don’t think (the people involved in the decision) realized what they were getting into. So it’s just kind of happening. It isn’t right. It’s not what I want to do. But I really need to do this now, for the station.”

Over the decades, Akana said, she has witnessed different owners and different general managers test the strength and durability of the wall traditionally erected between editorial content (the news) and advertising (the sales jobs). Sponsored segments, for example, bridge the two and have become an industry norm.

“As a journalist, we normally do not use our name to sell a product,” she said. “Integrity is really the last thing journalists have in the world now. … We read the news. We gather the stories. We put it together. I present it to you.”

“I do my job. I think I do it really well. I don’t see myself as a star. I’m just a person who loves journalism.”

About the Author

  • Brett Oppegaard
    Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at brett.oppegaard@gmail.com.
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