For one reader, a recipe for questions

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Thomas Wall of Rancho Palos Verdes wrote, ‘I did not think I would ever write to complain about the contents of an article by S. Irene Virbila concerning how to make a turkey pot pie, but my ethics require me to do so. I am referring to her otherwise excellent article [Nov. 26]. Her writing has compelled me to try the recipe. My concern, however, is very serious. She writes, ‘This year, Ralphs had turkeys on sale for 37 cents a pound...’.’

‘She could have easily written, ‘This year, turkeys were on sale at some stores for as low as 37 cents a pound.’ I am concerned that the reason Ms. Virbila identified a particular store was that the store was a major advertiser with The Times. It is no secret that The Times, like other newspapers, are having severe economic problems, but to identify their major advertisers in major stories is something that even a small local paper would, I hope, have the ethics not to do.’

Food Editor Russ Parsons assures us that the inclusion of that reference had nothing to do with pleasing an advertiser. But it never occurred to the editor or reporter that including such information might come across to readers as a sign of complicity between the newsroom and the advertising department.

Reporters and editors at The Times know that, simply put, their credibility lies in behaving ethically. That includes one obvious rule by which journalists are expected to live and write by: not giving organizations or companies special consideration or mention in stories simply because they are advertisers.


But in this era of well-publicized economic woes for newspapers, and the public’s lack of trust in journalists in general, it shouldn’t be surprising that many readers either don’t know that or don’t believe it. Even after being assured that there’s no pay-to-play practice in the Food section, Wall wrote back to say: ‘Ralphs is a major advertiser in The Times and yes, I really do have a problem in believing that the writers (or their editors) are not being influenced by them.’ (Ralphs doesn’t advertise in Food, though other food stores do, but does advertise on Sundays in The Times, in Section A.)

Parsons’ response: ‘The reader brings up an interesting point, one that quite honestly I probably haven’t paid enough attention to.

‘Of course, there are no commercial considerations when a product or business is mentioned in the Food section. Generally, when we make a specific mention of a business, it is because they offer a special product or service. As often as possible, we try to offer more than one choice –- for example, in our wine stories we’ll often have two or three stores where a bottle can be bought (and, hopefully, with geographic distribution so our readers in the Valley and in Orange County can find it without too much of a journey). Aside from specific product recommendations, we sometimes include the names of products or businesses for the simple reason that they add important information or add to the storytelling.’

In this case, the detail enhanced the storytelling, Parsons said: ‘Quite honestly, we left it in because it was a nice concrete detail and I found the idea of our restaurant critic –- who routinely judges $300 dinners –- shopping for 37-cents-a-pound turkey amusing.’

There’s also this reality from the readers’ representative office: Too often, when news stories report on an exceptional product or price, but don’t mention a specific, this office hears from readers asking for consumer-friendly details. Such details aren’t always included because reporters know there’s a fine line between writing for readers (who also are consumers) and appearing to hawk a place or product.

As it turns out, there was no comparison shopping to determine whether this was the absolute best price available (though Parsons points out it was very cheap; according to the USDA, the wholesale price of whole turkey was around 96 cents a pound). But given the reader’s suspicions, Parsons says, ‘It probably wouldn’t have hurt the story to have her say that she’d found turkey for 37 cents a pound and leave it at that; quite honestly, it just never occurred to me that someone might take it the wrong way.’

The reader didn’t note that The Times recipe story included two other commercial references; one to Swanson’s probably didn’t raise his ire because it was compared unfavorably to the dish being discussed (and Swanson’s doesn’t advertise in The Times). But what about this other reference from the recipe?

‘To bake the pot pie, I use a slightly squared oval casserole from the Danish designer Piet Hein (purchased online from’

Says Parsons: ‘I would make a similar argument for this detail -- that cooking something as homey and unassuming as a turkey pot pie in something as stylish as this casserole is a great detail that makes the story more entertaining. Though if I had to do it all over again, I might eliminate the reference to the source (still, it’s a great buy at $35!).’