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Unbelievable. While watching the CBS Evening News on March 8, I caught the tail end of a promo announcing an upcoming story of a dangerous new trend involving sleeping pills. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I saw a spot for Ambien sleeping pills during the ensuing commercial break.

With my curiosity now piqued, you can bet I stayed tuned in. When the commercial break ended, the lead story not only covered this dangerous trend but also cited an incident involving a teenager who had taken Ambien, gotten behind the wheel of a car, and wound up having a fatal accident.

Initially, I was horrified. How could a television network help promote the sale of a product that it also reported to be at the core of such a tragic incident? I was certain heads were rolling at CBS, not only in the newsroom but even more so in the advertising department. Is there no shame in profiting from a person's life?

I haven't heard a thing about this since it aired, but I'm sure millions of others like me recognized the same blatant display of greed. What do examples like this do to our nation's belief and trust in the news media?

At a time when America is still feeling the sting from a prominent columnist's being paid handsomely by a third party for writing favorable opinion pieces, the nation's most respected newspaper's fabricating stories, and television stations' running government-supplied and government-funded video news releases as news about the war... more greed is not good.

And it's not just happening among the nation's elite news organizations.

A couple of years ago, a colleague of mine was pitching to a local television station a story about a group of citizens pooling their money together to buy Christmas gifts for needy children in the area. The group was going to gather at a local Wal-Mart to buy the gifts before returning to their neighborhood to wrap them. The station was interested in the story but made it clear that because Wal-Mart was not advertising on their station it would not cover the portion of the story happening at Wal-Mart.

Bah-humbug? No, this is serious. In many ways, the reputation of the news media reflects the reputation of a nation. In a free-speech society, the news media is widely considered the last bastion of truth. If the media falls prey to the same corporate greed that has besieged America over the last 10 years, then we can assume that no one in America is capable of telling the truth. Without trust, our nation has no honor, and without honor, we have no regard among other nations.

So, what does this mean for the public relations industry in the US?

As the credibility of our country's respected news organizations inches closer to that of the supermarket tabloids, where do we guide our efforts to secure credible "news" for our clients? For starters, we need to look within. How can we hold journalism accountable when we are so lackadaisical in holding our own industry accountable?

The Village Voice recently published an article about the ethics of "new media marketing" (a term use in this case for word of mouth marketing) in the music industry. One publicist was quoted in the article as saying, "I will do anything. Whatever gets people talking about my client's product. There is no moral line."

Obviously, the person who said this has no problem with corporate greed or journalistic immorality, and if she happens to come across this article at MarketingProfs.com, I don't suspect she'll care enough to click through.

The PR industry has made noble attempts over the last decade to overcome a reputation as a morally retarded profession. The Public Relations Society of America has a code of ethics that all members must adhere to (although its enforcement is not policed), and the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) issued its own ethical code last year.

Word-of-mouth is an organized marketing strategy designed to communicate brand truths person to person. It's fundamentally based on building relationships between people in order to establish credibility for the messenger. WOMMA believes that the very survival of the industry practice is dependent on "protecting consumers' right to open, honest communication." The code, it states, "is a tool for ethical marketers to understand where the lines are drawn and how to do the right thing."

Interestingly enough, these were the words used by New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller in an interview with USA Today about the issue of publishing the highly controversial Danish cartoon depicting the prophet Mohammed that enraged so many Muslims around the world. Keller was reported as saying he decided, after a "long and vigorous debate," that publishing the cartoon would be "perceived as a particularly deliberate insult" by Muslims. "Like any decision to withhold elements of a story, this was neither easy nor entirely satisfying, but it feels like the right thing to do."

The right thing to do. Seems like journalism and public relations both know the answer for turning their reputations around. Now let's see whether we can all work together to make it happen. The reputation of our nation depends on it.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kara Dullea is vice-president of public relations at the bounce agency (thebounceagency.com).