LA Times Uncovers Bad Brand Journalism

by / Newsroom Ink on 11/26/2011

Authors of News Hawks Review stories promoting water district cannot be found.

by Newsroom Ink staff

Mike Adams was without question a productive journalist. Covering the Central Basin Municipal Water District in the southeast Los Angeles area, he wrote more than 20 stories over the course of a few months on the water wholesaler for the online news site – News Hawks Review – the bad boys and girls of internet news.

Adams provided coverage on green topics such as recycled water that irrigated the medians and parks, and the computer system a college used to irrigate its landscaping.

Ed Coghlan, Coghlan Consulting. Photo/LinkedIn

Mike Adams had a real talent for covering the topic of water; the only problem was Mike Adams did not exist.

In a November 8th, 2011 article published in the Los Angeles Times, reporter Sam Allen could find no evidence of the existence of a journalist going by the name of Mike Adams.

According to Allen’s article, Adams’ stories were published on the News Hawks Review after the Central Basin Water District agreed to pay up to nearly $200,000 in taxpayer money to public relations consultant Ed Coghlan. Under the deal, Coghlan said he would produce promotional stories about the district that would be indexed on Google News.

Central Basin staffers, according to the Times article recommended the agreement with Coghlan to the board of directors, said the stories would enhance the district’s image and would be written by experienced journalists.

Ed Coghlan’s LinkedIn profile says he is the principal of Coghlan Consulting, a board member at Unusual Suspects Theatre Company and a communications consultant for Bausch+Lomb. He is a graduate of the University of Great Falls, and a previous instructor of journalism at UCLA.

The twisted tail of corrupt brand journalism kept getting ever more twirled at every turn.

A biography on News Hawks Review, Adams was described as a former magazine writer and TV veteran. He was the home & lifestyle reporter for the news site with a background in home building, design and remodeling. He had a degree in construction sciences from Westminster College in Salt Lake City.

When Times reporter Allen tried to verify his credentials, Westminster’s registrar, Mindy Wennergren, said the school has never offered a degree in construction sciences.

Service area of Central Basin Municipal Water District.

The News Hawks newsroom had a photo posted of Adams that showed man with a gray beard and a black cowboy hat. A Times reader notified the paper that the photo was a stock image by photographer Leroy Skalstad used to demonstrate editing techniques on the deviantart.com website.

After the Times began inquiring about Adams, News Hawks removed his name and image from the site and stories are now credited to “publisher.”  The names of other reporters and editors previously listed on the site have also been taken down, including Editor in Chief Ruth Gramma and reporters Hannah Grimm, Charles Lindy and Kara Degete.

According to a self-description on the Google News index, “NewsHawkReivew.com is an Internet News Site with up to date news articles. If it’s news we do our best to report it. Our genuine desire is to report first, Hard News, second, Breaking News and then Feature News. We will do investigative reporting whenever we can. Our news articles are written by experienced and highly knowledgeable staff of reporters and writers.”

In the description of the bad boys and girls of internet news, the site name is disturbingly misspelled – NewsHawkReivew, not NewsHawksReview – an ominous warning to the journalistic credibility of the site.

Articles appearing on News Hawks Review resemble professional news websites. The site is indexed on Google News, carries advertisements and boasts an “experienced and highly knowledgeable” staff of editors and reporters. But records obtained by the LA Times, showed it is directly affiliated with the PR firm Coghlan Consulting Group, which is under contract with Central Basin. The agreement between Central Basin’s public affairs office and Coghlan Consulting promises promotional stories.

District officials portrayed the arrangement as innovative, noting that people who search for “water conservation” or “recycled water” on Google News were more likely to find stories about Central Basin.

Valerie Howard, the district’s public affairs manager, said the articles caused a “huge spike” in traffic to Central Basin’s main website and proved far more effective than traditional news releases.

Central Basin officials were at first pleased with the results. In an interview with the Times, Howard said she didn’t consider the News Hawks Review site misleading and characterized the coverage on it as fair.  She said she and other Central Basin officials gave interviews and information to Coghlan and viewed drafts of stories, which were then sent to the website.

Howard said the district has been fighting what she described as inaccurate news articles and blog posts.  The district has instructed Coghlan to no longer use the  News Hawks Review website.

In a November 9th response to the LA Times article posted on the Central Basin website, the organization “stress that the information related to the Central Basin Municipal Water District posted on the News Hawks Review website was true and accurate and reflected positive Central Basin announcements and policy initiatives and did not contain information designed to mislead the public about Central Basin’s substantive policies or the policies of other water districts.”

It denied any knowledge of ethical misconduct, however using a “bait and switch tactic” it accused the neighboring LA Water Replenishment District of using cybersquatting sites to mislead readers -(www.centralbasin.net, www.central-basin.com and www.centralbasinreplenishment.org).

This is not brand journalism where companies employ journalists to produce open and transparent content for their online news sites. This is a dangerously deceptive tactic that holds severe consequences for the future of brand journalism and journalists.

Coghlan Consulting and the Central Basin Municipal Water District have managed to completely corrupt the open and transparent philosophy behind effective brand journalism, giving brand journalists one hell of a black eye.

What Coghlan should have designed for the Central Basin is an open and transparent dynamic online newsroom staffed by professional brand journalists, instead of using an unethical news site that breached public trust. For similar costs, Central Basin could now be experiencing positive accolades for forward thinking from constituents, politicians and media; instead of negative national attention.

Organizations and companies alike have found success getting their story told to their target audiences with a dynamic online newsroom. During the heart of the BP Horizon Rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the Louisiana Seafood Board was able to get their story told by establishing www.LouisianaSeafoodNews.com.

Instead of hiding behind factious names and unethical news sites, the seafood board established a credible voice for the industry that media, politicians, industry experts and the general public wanted to visit on a regular basis.

Ed Coghlan Consulting, the Central Basin Municipal Water District and the district’s public affairs manager Valerie Howard all face ethics questions.

According to a statement issued to Translucid Communications by Prof. Deborah Silverman at Buffalo (NY) State College and chair of the Public Relations Society of America’s Ethics Board to , the “practice is contrary to the PRSA’s Code of Ethics, which espouses honesty and accuracy in communication, the free flow of information, and disclosure of information. The Central Basin Municipal Water District’s use of a communications firm to create “news” disguised as media coverage is a serious breach of ethical standards, and the district is operating in a manner that does little to aid the public’s decision-making process.”

“I fear neither Central Basin nor Ed Coghlan understand the long-term damage they may have caused,” explained Springfield Lewis, Newsroom Ink’s VP of Strategic Communication.” “Newsroom Ink agrees with Dr. Silverman and PRSA’s assessment of the Central Basin Municipal Water District’s situation. The use of brand journalist’s in this deceptive and unethical manner has severely damaged the credibility of the organization and placed the credibility of brand journalism and journalists in jeopardy.”

Public relations and communication professionals need to become the stalwart that keeps the companies and organizations they represent ethical, open and transparent. The digital age of communications has opened numerous channels for reporters, bloggers and even the general public to easily check on the accuracy of published material. The best way to control the accuracy of information published on the web is through a company’s online newsroom that is staffed by experienced brand journalists that can tell your company’s story from its unique perspective.


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