Ethics Questions: Advertising and the “Wall”

I’m planning to write my final paper on the ethics surrounding overlap between advertising  and journalism, and read some interesting articles about the topic this week. The first is from San Francisco Magazine about a recent incident at the SF Weekly. Glenn Zuehls, publisher of the SF Weekly and San Francisco Examiner, expressed his belief that there is no separation between the advertising and editorial departments, according to the San Francisco Magazine story.

Zuehls was angry because an advertiser had pulled a large amount of ads after what they thought was an unfavorable story. As a result, Zuehls wanted the SF Weekly staff to write a favorable story to be published on the front page. At a meeting on the subject, Zuehls said to the staff: “‘You’re not the New York Times. Just so you know,'” according to the article.

Reading through the rest of the article about the situation with the publisher shows several staff members positions on advertising content, which lay the groundwork for the ethics of the topic. This is an example of a common problem for publications: advertising is needed to pay the bills, but a publication needs to maintain independence.

The problem at SF Weekly goes beyond just the need to raise revenue and seems to be a problem between the views of the publisher and the values of the editorial department. What happens when the separation between the advertising and editorial departments of a publication goes away or the line is blurred? In this case, would writing a favorable article about an advertiser be any more acceptable if it was published in another place instead of the front page? What if there had been an editor’s note explaining the relationship between the paper and the company?

It seems clear that in order for the paper to maintain its integrity and responsibility to the public, publishing a favorable article about an advertiser without any indication of the relationship would be unethical. But what about when the ad is designed to also give readers beneficial information about the product, such as through sponsored features? Again, maybe not on the front page, but could this still be included in the publication?

A recent article in The Boston Globe looked at this issue when talking about the marketing company HubSpot, and the influence these kinds of companies have. They “are helping to reshape the ­media landscape into a place where the ­informational articles and videos people consume online are increasingly produced by corporations selling products, instead of news outlets,” the article states. People are getting information about products directly from advertisers, which is bad news for the journalism business model. This kind of content marketing is another way for companies to expose people to their products, but what might happen if journalists start getting involved? Is there room for collaboration between advertisers and journalists? Could journalists evaluate and provide information to readers on behalf of advertisers, or as has happened in the past, is that a line that just shouldn’t be crossed?


3 thoughts on “Ethics Questions: Advertising and the “Wall”

  1. ksmajed says:

    I was reading this earlier and thought about your final paper: – unsure if it will be helpful. I think you have a very interesting final paper topic – because it’s true, advertising is everywhere. It leaks into everything, sometimes without you even knowing it. There are some aspects of native advertising that are interesting – for example the whole thing we saw on Orange is the New Black. It’s geared towards getting people to watch the show while somehow being informational and teaching us something. In some ways, it could be interesting to see native advertising transform because maybe while talking about certain beauty routines, it could give us scientific insight behind random products. But there is also clearly a danger. Where is the line drawn between fact and opinion? How can we remain distant from the products being advertised? How is that if we are writing about something to encourage interest, when will we ever say something bad about it?


  2. Bill Mitchell says:

    Your post — and Kareya’s helpful comment — underline the importance of your final paper topic, Jess. So much of the commentary leaves readers more confused than we were before — partly because the terms and approaches are so new. Let me add one more link for you to consider: This piece by my friend (and partner in a start-up based in Detroit) Kirk Cheyfitz argues for an approach quite different than native advertising: useful, reliable content produced by and distributed by brands themselves. The interesting question is what role there might be for news organizations in helping brands produce this kind of content — not to be displayed on the news organization’s site but on the brand’s own site or independent platforms like YouTube.


  3. Kirk Cheyfitz says:

    Bill, thanks for inviting me to this party and for recommending one of my pieces on so-called native ads. I agree absolutely that brand content works best on neutral channels (YouTube is a great example), social channels (Tumblr, Facebook and so on) and brand-owned blogs and microsites and so on. This is because, as I say in the post you are citing, “A brand must be known as the provider of such content so audiences will see the brand as trusted ally, valued adviser, and inventive entertainer. No sane brand would spend money to create great content only to let some publisher or broadcaster get the credit.” But the brand could choose to run the same content on a newspaper page (print or digital) as long as the brand, not the paper, got the credit for authorship. Finally, you ask “what role there might be for news organizations in helping brands produce this kind of content” and I respond: News organizations have spent a couple centuries developing a skill set that brands lack: recognizing a good story when they see one and knowing how to tell it in an engaging, accurate way. I believe news organizations will make more money for a much longer period of time and destroy far fewer relationships with readers if they sell their storytelling services instead of their credibility. I add that their credibility, while critically important to them, may not be worth as much as they think it is on the open market.


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