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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Sports marketing deal between USA Today and IndyCar raises ethical issues

The USA Today Sports Media Group and the IndyCar Series have entered into a deal that appears to combine news coverage and advertising that some observer find ethically disconcerting, according to a report in the Indianapolis Business Journal.

The agreement, initiated by USA Today, promises to bring more attention to open wheel racing, and will provide USA Today journalists with enhanced access to

Writing for IBJ, Anthony Schoettle reports that the agreement, initiated by USA Today, promises to bring more attention to open wheel racing, and will provide USA Today journalists with enhanced access.

As part of the deal announced Feb. 26, USA Today, owned by Indianapolis Star parent Virginia-based Gannett Co. Inc., has agreed to write pre- and post-race stories for every IndyCar race and produce special sections around the sport and its drivers. The news organization also agreed to expand its coverage of IndyCar on In return, IndyCar promised to give USA Today reporters preferred access to series officials, team owners and drivers, and track owners.

IndyCar also promised to give USA Today advertising sales representatives access to its series and team sponsors. USA Today, IndyCar officials said, will be invited to a number of “sponsor summits” and other networking events.

While marketers associated with IndyCar are excited about the potential boost in awareness and attention to the sport, Schoettle notes that the deal raises concerns among some media ethicists, including the risk of bias in coverage, a chilling effect on the coverage efforts by other news organizations, and the blurring of advertising and editorial content.

“When you make a deal that ties coverage to advertising and marketing in a way that can erode journalistic independence, you have a serious ethical issue,” [Bob] Steele said. “Readers must be confident that all news reporting is driven by journalistic principles and ethical standards and not by business values. This relationship certainly raises at the minimum a yellow flag and perhaps some serious red flags.” [Steele is the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a think tank in St. Petersburg, Florida.]

Content agreements such as the one with IndyCar are not new for USA Today.  The organization has in place similar deals with both NASCAR and the PGA.

Marketing and media arrangements such at the USA Today/IndyCar deal are among the types of ethical issues in sports journalism that will be discussed at the UW-Madison Center for Journalism Ethics seventh annual conference, Fair or Foul: Ethics and Sports Journalism on April 10.  Additional details and recitation information for the conference, which is open to the public, can be found here

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