Research firm offers cash for journalists' opinions on oil, gas industries

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2010; 8:00 PM

News reporters are supposed to keep their opinions out of their copy. They certainly aren't supposed to sell them back to the people they cover.

Yet now there's a hush-hush way for journalists to turn their innermost thoughts into cold hard cash. A New York research firm has been trolling Washington and other precincts in search of reporters willing to unburden themselves. For a price.

Specifically, $250 for about 25 minutes of answering questions, a rate that values journalists' time and opinions as roughly the same as your average high-priced lobbyist or lawyer.

The firm, PFC Opinion Research, is rounding up reporters and editors who cover the energy sector to opine about "certain aspects of oil and gas industries," as an e-mail sent this week to journalists, including several at The Washington Post, described it.

PFC promises to pay participating journalists "in cash" and to keep everyone's name on the down low, which means the recipients can hide the proceeds from their employers and the pesky tax collectors.

The company calls its cash offer an "honorarium." But at least one journalism ethics expert has another name for it: dubious.

"If this doesn't raise an ethical red flag, nothing will," said Stephen Ward, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin. By moonlighting for the companies and industries they cover, he notes, reporters risk compromising their independence and neutrality and leave themselves open to suspicions of being bribed.

Public relations firms in Washington and elsewhere occasionally undertake "media audits" of reporters and other potentially influential people to gauge how their clients are perceived or how well they're communicating their messages, said Terry Neal, senior vice president of Hill & Knowlton, a public affairs firm in Washington.

But Neal, a former Post reporter, said it's "highly unusual" for journalists to be paid for participating in such research. "It's inappropriate," he said. "The greater public might view it as an attempt to buy a reporter off."

In an interview, David Leonard, the director of PFC, compared the recruitment of journalists for the survey to taking part in a focus group. "We're trying to learn how people feel about policy," he said. "This isn't marketing or sales or consumer research. We're not trying to shape an ad campaign."

Leonard would not identify the client who is commissioning the research. His company is acting as the recruiter on behalf of another research firm, B/R/S Group, which is conducting the actual opinion study. PFC gets several such assignments a year.

A representative of B/R/S, based in San Rafael, Calif., did not return a call seeking comment Thursday.

Leonard acknowledged that some would-be participants had turned down the offer on ethical grounds (and one said he would donate his fee to charity). As of Wednesday, six journalists had agreed to take part, leaving Leonard four short of his goal.

"It's ironic that journalists depend on people to give them their opinions but aren't as forthcoming with their own," Leonard said. "It's easier to get a congressman to participate."

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