Advertising and News: Where’s the line?

The module addresses the following ethical issues:

Every news organization needs an advertising policy. Most policies require that advertising content be identified as such — if it’s not immediately obvious. Other policies sometimes limit or forbid certain types of ads: weapons, get-rich-quick schemes, cigarettes, alcohol, etc.

With so many news outlets under financial pressure, new sources of advertising revenue are extremely attractive. News organizations are discussing everything from allowing ads on the covers of magazines to creating their own in-house shops to design advertising. Many advertisers, however, are looking for something more effective than the traditional display or banner ad. They want their advertising to look more like your regular editorial content. That increases the credibility of the advertising message by blending it with your editorial credibility.

There are a variety of ways to accomplish this. The advertiser might settle for “sponsoring” articles on a subject it wants to promote — for instance, winter sports. The company would pay for your journalists’ work, but you would retain full control over all editorial content.

Alternatively, the advertiser might commission articles written by your own staff, but with the condition that they will include specific angles or product references determined by the advertiser. Or the advertiser might supply the entire text, asking you to make it look like your own staff had written it. (This latter technique is sometimes called “native advertising,” “sponsored content,” “partner content,” “content marketing” or “advertorial.”) An advertiser might also want you to promote such material on your own social networking channels.

Some news outlets try to find ways to accommodate such requests for the sake of the revenue behind them. They may reason that having their writers produce, for instance, a special section on winter sports is an overall service to readers, even if the stories need to contain a reference to a particular brand of ski. Or even if one article on the page is provided entirely by the advertiser.

The slippery-slope potential here is obvious: the danger to the integrity of your news outlet. If you’re willing to bend your editorial product to the desires of a ski manufacturer today, you may bend them tomorrow to the will of a political party. Ultimately, there’s the danger of gaining a reputation as a bought-and-paid-for publication, untrusted by readers and unable to attract quality staff.

Some organizations have writers and photographers on their advertising staffs to produce native advertising or advertorial content for customers, without involving the news staff. Others recommend freelancers for this purpose.

One good guideline is to carefully define what kind of advertising you will accept and not accept, and have specific definitions of terms like “Sponsored Content” and “Paid Posts.” Consider using reader focus groups to determine if they understand what these terms mean. If they don’t, use clearer language.

The main author of this module is Thomas Kent.