From Philadelphia comes news that the 76ers basketball team refuses to say “Wells Fargo” when referring to the arena where it plays.
Wells Fargo, which bought the bank that bought the bank that made the original deal in 1996, owns naming rights until the 29-year, $40 million deal ends in 2025.
But that money went to the arena owner, not the team. The bank is not a 76ers corporate sponsor, so the 76ers call it “The
Wells Fargo Center” when referring to home.
A couple of media ethics thoughts:
1. What obligation do journalists have to help others peddle products — and, by extension, ideas?
If you’re not getting paid to do a brand’s work for it—say, by calling an arena by some dumb name—you shouldn’t do that work. We don’t really do official policies around here, and we’ll surely mess this up, but we’re probably going to try and follow the 76ers’ lead. So the next time you read us writing about something occurring at Tropicana Field, feel free to (politely) drop into the comments and remind us that we aren’t getting free juice boxes, and that it’s actually the Florida Suncoast Dome.
Sports teams and leagues race to the bank on the backs of free media, by selling ad space and naming rights, with much of the value derived by the fact that news organizations usually call places and things by the advertised name.
This happens with obvious things, such as naming rights to games, races and stadiums. But it also happens with stealth, such as at the 2015 Master’s when some media reported Tiger Woods “jamming on the driving range” while wearing headphones, not noting that Woods is a pitchman for the company.
This isn’t to say that news organizations should be in business with those who sell sell naming rights to the events and places that journalists cover. As Brent Musberger taught us, it’s tacky to name-check the sponsor when covering the action – especially just before the biggest play of the game.
So if the 76ers can decide not to name where it plays for something as simple as not getting paid, then journalist should have the right, too.
This notion should be moved out of the sandbox of sports journalism, too. Smart journalists should be aware of the power of words — and willing to dismiss the PR and ad words flung that them. Propagandists are most powerful when they decide the terms used to define their friends and enemies.
An example is the reminder that something isn’t necessarily “reform” simply because someone calls it that. See: tort reform, health care reform, etc. The better phrase may be “changes to civil law” or “changes to current health care,” which doesn’t roll off the keyboard as smoothly but also also doesn’t have journalists seeming to take sides. See also: Politicians who say “the American people want (or believe).” The next question from a reporter should be: “May we see the public opinion poll that tells you this?”
2. The 76ers are giving journalists another ethical justification for refusing to using team names that many people find offensive and degrading.
Media ethics research more than two decades old discusses the considerations of media organizations that refuse to call teams by nicknames that some readers find offensive or degrading to others. The debate has only heightened since then, after the NCAA forced some schools to change names and the NFL’s Washington franchise feels pressure to find a new name.
So if a sports team won’t call its home by its high-priced name for reasons of filthy lucre, then journalists have at least as much right to decide what they will call teams in the news space they control.
Thanks, 76ers, for making it easier for journalists to do what they already should be doing.