The Confederations Cup Junket

International Marketing Council of South Africa

The International Marketing Council of South Africa (IMC), custodian of the country’s national brand, has launched a major campaign to spark enthusiasm and unite the country and the continent behind the 2009 Fifa Confederations Cup and 2010 World Cup.

A lesson in media ethics, boys and girls: South Africa’s marketing council is offering expense-paid trips (“junkets”) worth thousands of dollars to U.S.-based bloggers/reporters to cover the Confederations Cup and, in effect, help promote tourism. The council’s purpose is to “create a positive and compelling brand image for South Africa.” At least two folks who contribute to ESPN’s online soccer coverage, as well as others, are considering accepting the offer. Nope, absolutely no conflicts of interest there.

This drew the ire of blogger Dan Loney on Big Soccer, who went off on Goff in the comments here (“Steven Goff? Catty? Pushing his own agenda? Leaning on his Washington Post position in order to promote himself at the expense of independents? Seriously? Steven Goff?”).

Junket

The marketing council behind the original post then responded with their own defense of the offer in Business Day. Confusingly, it seems Goff helped the council find bloggers to contact.

I told Goff of my plan to bring a group of US soccer bloggers to the Confederations Cup next month. Predictably, he regretted the Post would not allow him to come on such a trip, but he was also very helpful in recommending the names of other bloggers whom he thought I might approach with more success. He even gave me their e-mail addresses.

It was with a certain amazement, therefore, that I read what he had to say about our conversation in a blog item he uploaded to the Post website later that afternoon. He threatened to name and shame anyone who came on the proposed tour as ethically challenged. It had an effect. Several of his biggest competitors, who might otherwise have been covering USA versus Brazil and Italy as the International Marketing Council’s (IMC’s) guests, will now, with him, be staying home.

Bizarre.

One comment on Goff’s blog nailed the dilemna facing US soccer bloggers:

Mr. Goff:

Re: Trip to South Africa

This issue is a bit trickier than your snarky comment would suggest. Presumably, most U.S. newspapers will not be sending reporters to cover the Confed. Cup. As a result, U.S. based readers will necessarily rely on AP/Reuters reporting to cover the match. Because most bloggers cannot afford to cover this event in person, they face an apparent choice between the prospect of no coverage with the appearance of conflict loyalties.

Your comment assumes that the mentioned ESPN folks cannot cover the event in an even handed way if their trip is paid by South Africa. Given that this is socer (and not a global business summitt or some other matter of actual importance), I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt in order to get coverage of this event. Traditional newspaper ethics might suggest otherwise, but I think the snark is misplaced here.

This boils down to the heart of the question facing the soccer media in the US today.  With a collapsing newspaper industry and only a nascent independent soccer online soccer media off of which no-one I’m aware is able to purely make a living from (the country’s most popular blogger, Ives Galarcep still freelances for ESPN and was probably one of the writers Goff was referring to), it would simply be impossible for any blogger or journalist to fund their own trip, and the Post and ESPN (the biggest media outlets covering soccer with any seriousness) obviously weren’t sending anyone.

At the same time, Goff’s obviously right that there is a conflict of interest. Could one go to South Africa, all-expenses-paid, and provide a fair look at the state of the country’s infrastructure without even feeling conflicted? Simon Barber of South Africa’s marketing council, in his defense of the offer to bloggers, says this is possible.

There is nothing to stop bloggers on an expenses-paid trip to SA saying what they wanted about the experience

BACK when I was a member of the Fourth Estate, I was always quite happy to bite any hand that fed me. If you offered me an expenses-paid trip, I would generally have no compunction about taking it, but you had better be prepared to count your fingers when I wrote it up.

It’s quite possible some would have the necessary integrity and balls to pull this off. Do I think I would have?  I hope so, but the more I think about it, the more it gnaws at me that maybe, just maybe I wouldn’t be quite as brutally homest as I would have been if I’d paid my own way somehow.

After all, I was one who criticised British journalists who accepted a junket from Uzbeki oligarch Alisher Usmanov a couple of years ago, as he looked to repair his tarnished reputation (sadly, he did manage to bamboozle some of them). Taking an offer from a known criminal is a different matter than from a South African government agency, but still, isn’t the principle the same?

Whilst Goff’s snarky tone is unwelcome and childish, he does have a point about the potential conflict of interest. Should we as bloggers be prepared to sacrifice traditions of journalistic ethics to be able to provide coverage that wouldn’t otherwise exist?  Is this a line any of us should be willing to try to tread?

I’m curious as to what you’d have done if you’d received the same email I did.  Would you have gone?

16 thoughts on “The Confederations Cup Junket

  1. Jason Davis

    I had heard about the trip and wondered about it’s origin; not sure how I would have handled things. More than likely, I would have had the decision made, as you did, but circumstance. Still, the question you present-how are soccer fans supposed to get coverage when the mainstream media with the necessary funds won’t send anyone-is the most interesting aspect.

    Some kind of shift needs to happen, and happen quickly, if the sport is going to get the type of coverage we expect in other sports. Unfortunately, advertisers either take bloggers for granted or use them for exposure without any kind of compensation, which leads to these issues; unpaid and underfunded writers with the most to say and the forum to say it are reduced to accepting what might about to bribes.

    Maybe we should form some kind of bloggers union, pay into a pool, and send one or two people to each major event abroad.

  2. Nick

    I have to say, I wish more bloggers, yourself included, were taking them up on their offer. There are plenty of stories on BBC Sport about the progress of South Africa heading into WC2010. What the Beeb doesn’t offer is American soccer coverage by American soccer writers. If you wrote a fluff piece about the country being beautiful and the stadiums looking ready for 2010 I wouldn’t care as long as you were also there to take pictures, report on the games, and interview the American players face-to-face. If Ives does go all expenses paid, good for him. He is a great writer and I follow his site religiously. He has a great access to a bunch of the players (T-Ho, Jozy, etc.) and I would be really disappointed if he couldn’t interview them at this year’s biggest tournament.

  3. Captain Haddock

    I think the issue is where the conflict of interest arises. For example, if the coal industry pays for a junket to a couple model mines in West Virginia, the journalist might come away with a skewed perception of the industry, which is precisely the industry’s desire. But in this case, if South Africa pays for a junket for a soccer blogger, the blogger won’t get a skewed perception of soccer, they only might get a skewed perception of the tourist experience in South Africa. But ideally the soccer blogger will focus on the soccer and not on the tourist experience, so the conflict of interest won’t be nearly as much an issue.

  4. Nick D

    I would probably have dismissed it as a scam of some kind and moved on! That’s how sceptical the internet has me these days. In all seriousness, I see no problem with bloggers accepting such a trip. They will be there to cover the football, and although they will no doubt be encouraged to share their experiences of good hospitality, that is not the primary subject of their coverage. If they were representatives from a football travel company then you may question the ethics of it, but as football journalists I see no problem with it at all. I’ll take Goff’s place if he doesn’t want it!

  5. A. Ruiz

    I would have probably taken it, honestly it’s not like newspaper writers are without bias. They’re not on same plane above us and completely impartial. Even Goff, has certain biases in his coverage whether he admits it or not.

    Although, honestly I think if I did take the trip I would probably be harsher and more critical than if I had payed my own way. To compensate criticism that I’d been compromised. But honestly, hard hitting journalism from a sports writer is the exception not the rule. So it’s not like theres a super high standard to live up to. Especially when it comes to this sport, have you ever read Marca? I seriously think they have a dartboard by their cubicles and that’s how they come up with stories.

  6. Elliott

    I wish you were going – we need more bloggers there to get a sense from the ground level. When you get these offers, for example, I’ve gotten some product reviews, you just have to include the point that you have absolute creative control over the content. Most of these business types will accept that because any press is good press – what a writer sees as a negative may be someone else’s positive.

    For example, if I were to write about spartan living conditions, no a/c, poor public transportation, that may excite the adventure travelers.

    The two-sided blog post from the Post writer is hysterical – i cannot speculate on the motivations, but lady MacBeth seems more coherent.

  7. Dave

    I doubt I could have gotten that much time off from my day job to do it, but if I could have, I probably would have gone. I understand Mr. Goff’s argument, but if it’s okay for Malcolm Glazer and Tom Hicks to buy two of the biggest clubs on the planet without spending a dime of their own money, it’s just as okay for me going to South Africa under the same conditions.

  8. Matth

    Tom-

    This is a hot-button issue in the world of food blogging. Check out Chicago’s very own Sky Full of Bacon; Michael Gebert often discusses the responsibilities of the new media (independent bloggers) to follow the old rules of traditional journalistic integrity. http://skyfullofbacon.com/blog/?p=219 This post in particular takes on the issue in a rather idiosyncratic manner.

    Personally, I think that a blogger has much more leeway than a traditional newspaper journalist. The blogger creates his own name by writing interesting work – if his work is good enough and popular enough to warrant a comped trip, then he’s already proven his integrity. A newspaperman, however, assumes the integrity of the publication for which he writes.

    In the old world of newspaper monopolies, consumers had only two or three options for where to get their news, and the writers’ code was important to maintaining the authority of the newspaper. Now, however, if a blogger sells out, and his opinion is increasingly tarnished by the industry he is covering, readers have a simple option of clicking to someone else’s blog. Also, new competition to an established presence in the ‘net is much easier to develop – publication costs are essentially zero.

    This difference, and the inabliilty of the established media to recognize its development, is just one of many reasons why newspapers are quickly becoming redundant.

    MCP

    (Incidentally, I should at least say that I’m a huge proponent of newspapers; they just seem hopelessly stuck in a world that no longer exists.)

  9. Greg

    As far as conflicts of interest go, this is the most worrisome thing I’ve seen out of the entire ordeal:

    “Predictably, he regretted the Post would not allow him to come on such a trip, but he was also very helpful in recommending the names of other bloggers whom he thought I might approach with more success. He even gave me their e-mail addresses.”

    If this account is true, then yes, hiss entire rant is completely out of line for more than one reason.

    For the record, I’ve made my full living (if you can call it that) from soccer writing for about seven years now. I make zero from my blog, don’t even try to. I was not asked, I would not have accepted and I certainly would not have attempted to shame colleagues that did. In fact, I make it a personal policy not to criticize or even vehemently disagree with other writers’ works.

  10. TCompton

    After following Goff for quite a while now, I’d bet that his “snarky” comment had no intent to it. Sarcasm is not a writer’s best method of communication.

  11. Joe Ski

    TCompton, if you honestly think Goff didn’t have a purpose for writing that then you are A) A blindly faithful Goff fan or B) blind. His snarky comment was meant to call out the people going on the trip, and I’m willing to bet he was hoping it would raise a stink, which is what it looks to have done.

    Also, here’s a thought that I haven’t heard a single person point out. Everyone wants to praise Goff for his so-called journalistic integrity but how much journalistic integrity do you need when you’ve got the cushiest gig in the game? The Washington Post sends Goff everywhere so when exactly is he standing up for journalistic integrity? Ah, right, the Confed Cup junket, but the Post’s own rules kept Goff from going to that, so how do people know Goff wouldn’t have taken the trip if it were up to him?

    Maybe, just maybe, the day will come when the Post folds and Goff has to saddle up his high horse and try to go it alone. Let’s see how his integrity holds up then.

  12. Abdel

    I doubt they would have seen the need to market to the demographic of readers of my blog but if an offer came my way I would have taken it for the following reasons:

    #1. Im an amateur blogger like you are and there is no ethical issue in our case. A lot of readers would be interested in reading about the Confederations Cup from a first hand perspective

    #2. South Africa is hosting the World Cup for the first time and needs all the support it can get. As idealistic as this may sound, isnt the world cup about the world coming together? I see no shame in promoting South Africa by means of media coverage

    #3. It would be a #$%load of fun

  13. Robert Woodard

    I totally understand your position. Writing about soccer isn’t a money making proposition and certainly,there is a need for bloggers who fill in the blanks left by mainstream media.

    I have very mixed emotions about South Africa and the Cup. Glad to see the big event in Africa, afraid the conditions will make it a nightmarish trip for travelers. The points made by several posts on your blog say it best. The focus on articles will be on the action on the field. I don’t think a free trip combined with a little food and drink compromise a blogger anymore than “professional” journalists covering major sports with the perks that come with the territory.

    I’m with the National Soccer Coaches Association of America’s Black Soccer Coaches Committee and we’d like to go the South Africa next summer and I would be there to cover our efforts there and of course games. Regardless of how the trip is funded, there has to be some lattitude to make observations and comments on conditions.

    I generally like Goff and used him as a source in my book but he’s way off base here. In fact one of the points in my book was about how soccer people seem intent on acting in their own selfish interest instead of working to build the game.

    Wish you could have gone to SA. Would have loved to seen first hand accounts. Who knows, maybe we’ll both get to go next summer.

  14. Sherryl

    “A lesson in media ethics, boys and girls: South Africa’s marketing council is offering expense-paid trips (”junkets”) worth thousands of dollars to U.S.-based bloggers/reporters to cover the Confederations Cup and, in effect, help promote tourism.” not sure how accurate this really is. what source did this come from?

  15. Bobby

    I somewhat agree with a few of the others, I see this as old media trying to spite new media in a way. It’s a shame, really. I don’t really see it as a conflict of interest either.

    It just seems to me like American traditional sports media has become so confrontational recently, and they almost always need to include what basically amounts to a hatchet piece in the paper. Remember the newspaper media vs. Jacksonville? That was shameful. Imagine what they’d say about Jo’berg.