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06 November 2006

Stark question for reporters


WHAM staffers are bemused by the controversy over the word ‘starkish', an adjective invented by a public relations consultant promoting a new alcoholic pre-mix called Stark.

Stark offered reporters and presenters the chance to win a trip to New York if they used ‘starkish' in their stories or programs. The word, which is said to describe something which has a sense of proportion and good taste, may or may not have been derived from the name of one Philippe Starck.

According to Greg Roughan, Sunday Star-Times, Starck is a seriously cool character who invented a seriously cool lemon juicer.

TV 3 Campbell Live reporter Jaquie Brown, Mark Sainsbury of TV One, Dominic Bowden of NZ Idol, Jo McCarroll of the Herald on Sunday and of course Roughan himself are among those understood to have used the term.

In a story in the NZ Herald by Martha McKenzie-Minifie, University of Canterbury journalism school head Jim Tully is quoted as saying the promotion created a conflict of interest for journalists. Journalists Training Organisation executive director Jim Tucker accused it of trying to attack the integrity of the news.

WHAM thinks the promotion itself is very creative. It  doesn't contravene the public relations code of ethics, because the promoters are being quite open about who they are and what they are promoting.

Whether it is unethical from the perspective of any journalists who have used the word is another matter. But if it is, where does it leave reporters whose story choices are influenced by the opportunity to win a journalistic award -- some of which are now worth several thousand dollars? Or because the people they choose to report share their interests and values? Or because it will boost ratings or sell more papers? News selection is not an agnostic process.

We suspect the issue falls in a no-man's land where ethics are unclear and become a matter of degree; a little like a gift for a client at Christmas. A bottle of wine, a box of chocolates or even a smart lunch is not out of the ordinary.

But at a certain point, an incentive or a gratuity becomes so lavish it becomes inappropriate. Whether an all-expenses trip to New York crosses that line is a matter of judgement. We suspect that most  editors will believe it does. Some may even conclude that the promotion lacks the 'sense of proportion' that Stark is meant to describe.

Perhaps the promoters will have the ultimate success - a highly publicised competition, where no reporter is allowed by their employer to claim the ultimate prize.

[Footnote: World designer Francis Hooper, presenter of George FM's Feel Good show, was the eventual winner. Since Hooper is an entertainer, not a journalist, ethics did not get in the way of someone enjoying the big prize.]

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