Gun-ad ban hints at new media standards

Decision by two Tucson, Ariz., newspapers treads a line between ethics and censorship.

When this city's two daily newspapers recently banned classified ads for private gun sales, the response was fast and unforgiving.

"Be a newspaper, not a police officer!" said one letter to the editor. Another called the policy hypocritical. "Since automobiles kill many more people than guns, are you also going to reject classified ads from individuals trying to sell their automobiles...?"

The Arizona Daily Star and Tucson Citizen are not the only papers to get letters like these. Eleven others around the US also exclude such ads.

The financial costs can be significant - The Seattle Times reportedly loses as much as $400,000 a year for refusing to publish certain ads. Still, as the traditional "firewall" between editorial content and advertising crumbles, the move is becoming a more accepted way of keeping values consistent throughout the paper, media experts say.

"The newspapers leave the impression that 'We just don't do this,' " says Jay Black, a media-ethics professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, comparing the practice to banning ads for adult bookstores. "Their editorial position is supposed to be the voice of the paper."

Indeed, while the decision costs both Tucson papers advertising and subscription revenues - a combined $20,000 this year, according to one insider - the publishers call it a moral duty.

"The publishers felt that our advertising policies needed to be in alignment with policies that they've encouraged on our editorial pages," says Jim Rowley, vice president for the Tucson papers' shared marketing department. "They favor background checks for firearm purchases."

Backdoor censorship?

For many gun proponents, however, the move amounts to backdoor censorship, and unfairly targets a legal practice.

"Realistically, this will have no effect whatsoever on criminal access to firearms," says Jim Manown, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association. "Such an action condemns the 99 percent of law-abiding gun owners."

"If the nation's newspapers want to make an editorial comment regarding gun ownership," he adds, "they have a forum to do that on their editorial pages."

But journalism and law experts say the bans are not unconstitutional. "A news operation has the right to make these kinds of decisions," says Mr. Black, who is also the former chair of the National Society of Professional Journalists' Ethics Committee. "Advertisers can't draw on First Amendment claims when you're dealing with a private interest."

The classified-ad debate is hardly new. Papers ranging from the Chicago Tribune to The Seattle Times have such policies. The Seattle paper took its strategy a step further in the 1980s, banning not only handgun and assault-rifle ads, but also those for escort services and tobacco.

It's paid a steep price. The paper reportedly loses between $100,000 and $400,000 annually because of the ban, according to a report in the 1999 Editor & Publisher International Yearbook.

Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen says any uproar has long since subsided over the path charted by his predecessors.

"The philosophy then was the same as today - the use of handguns, especially in an urban area, doesn't serve any particular social purpose," he says, "and has a whole lot of downsides, either criminal activities, or gun owners not being careful enough in how they lock up their guns."

But the Times also makes an effort to not be heavy-handed. "Philosophically, we bend over backwards to allow access to the newspaper," Mr. Blethen says. "We will indeed accept issue advertising about tobacco or advertising about guns, so if the NRA wants to run an ad with us and explain why our policy is goofy, more power to them."

Journalism's new rules

Many journalism critics see no problems with such policies. "It's fine for a newspaper to refuse advertising," says Deni Elliott, a journalism professor and director of the Practical Ethics Center at the University of Montana. "It's actually one of the ways they can establish certain editorial perspectives."

Yet restricting classified ads does strike these critics as a further breakdown of newspapers' decades-old practice of separating editorial content and advertising. The trend was highlighted by last year's scandal at The Los Angeles Times over a profit-sharing deal with a new sports arena.

"Journalists and people who study journalism have been in deep denial for years in terms of the intimate connection between advertising and editorial comment," says Mr. Elliott.

Adds Black: "It's not a completely open marketplace, and we all know that."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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