Final Paper: Journalism’s future in storytelling

Journalism hasn’t figured out a new business model that will sustain news organizations since the Web disrupted the traditional model. The relationship between journalism and advertising remains prevalent, but in the desperation to stay in business, many media organizations have compromised their ethical standards in the name of innovation and searching for a new ways of doing things.

The separation between church and state, or the wall between the editorial and business sides of news organizations, has been diminished, or compromised at the very least. Although to those in favor of the old journalism business model this may seem horrifying, there are people working to find a way to sustain journalism by creating content for advertisers more directly. And this may be a good thing, so long as business ethics aren’t lost along the way.

An article by Ira Basen for the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, discussed the evolution of the relationship between advertisers and newspapers. In their early history, newspapers functioned as a mouthpiece for political or business organizations. This changed when newspapers realized they could make more money through selling ads, according to Basen.

The transition happened quickly so that by 1900, 55 percent of total newspaper revenue came from advertising, Basen wrote.

“And so publishers and editors had to learn how to deal with a new challenge; how to keep advertisers happy while still maintaining a degree of editorial independence,” Basen wrote.

This is essentially the same challenges news organizations face today. Newspapers in 1900 developed standards for independence and reporting the truth to their readers and funding it with advertising. News organizations are still trying to maintain their independence while looking for possible revenue sources.

Native advertising and advertorials have been part of the options companies could choose for their ads, though this became increasingly unpopular with journalists as ethical standards were developed. This type of advertising is still around, in the form of sponsored or custom content, but as journalism revenue has declined, tolerance for these ads seems to have gone up. The ethical compromise needs to be addressed by news organizations so that they can continue with their primary mission to share news with the public.

Shannan Adler reports in an article for the Huffington Post that “Business Insider recently reported that spending on native ads is expected to reach a staggering $7.9 billion this year and grow to $21 billion in 2018.” Native advertising is part of the current business of journalism, but it may not be working the way news organizations hope.

“As newspapers are getting more desperate for revenue, advertisers are getting more demanding…They want something different, something that will help them break through the advertising clutter. Together they are moving into uncharted territory,” Basen wrote.

This new territory is taking shape as customized content for brands. Kirk Cheyfitz, co-chief executive officer and chief storyteller of Story Worldwide, asserts that journalists’ best asset is the skill of storytelling. When advertising becomes about telling a story and providing valuable information instead of selling a product, it can come closer to what journalists are used to doing. The hard-line between advertising and journalism fades. This can be a good thing.

According to Cheyfitz, creating stories for a brand is the solution:

 “Brand storytelling with rich content is powerful because audiences — the people formerly known merely as ‘consumers’ — pay attention to valuable content and reward brand-authors by sharing such content with friends and strangers on social platforms. This social sharing increases impact (by two to four times, studies show) and reach (up to nine times, mathematical models show), reducing media spend and boosting efficiency (by as much as 100 times).”

And if these stories can also be works of good journalism, their potential impact is even greater if they are shared this way. Audiences are looking for quality content and information, even if this comes from a brand.

Trained journalists could work on the business side of a news organization to work with brands to tell stories and create content, because they have the ability to recognize and tell a good story. This relationship could then fund the traditional journalism done on the editorial side. The separation between business and editorial is reestablished, and the new line that may seem blurred is if both sides are actually producing quality journalism. Newspapers are brands trying to sell their own product: news stories.

Part of the problem with native advertising is that it often appears like news content on a publications website or platform. If the platform was to change, it could alleviate some of the issue. “Brand-told stories work harder for a brand when they appear on neutral platforms (YouTube, for example) or sites owned by the advertiser,” Cheyfitz wrote. So it is even in the interest of the brand for the content to not just be published by a news organization. The news organization can deal with the ethical concerns by not publishing the ads themselves.

These new ventures with content marketing are not specifically addressed by newsroom ethics codes, but if this relationship is going to continue then these codes will need to be revised. The keys principles that news organizations should be mindful of are transparency, editorial independence and integrity.

It is necessary for each news organization that wants to build these advertising services to put principles in place that will allow for the traditional journalism to continue.

Transparency: Readers have a right to know which companies the news organization is working with. Perhaps they could be listed in a separate section on the news organization’s website. Be honest with your readers about the work that is being done and who is doing it. One of the main issues with native advertising is the deception that is usually involved, or that the sponsored content disclosure if so minimized that most people will miss it. Don’t try and disguise advertising as regular content. Doing this will only annoy readers and hurt advertisers.

Editorial independence: Advertising content should not influence news coverage. If an ad doesn’t fit with the mission of the organization, then the news organization should not be associated with it. Or if there is some conflict with advertising content once it has been published, make sure that it can be taken down or altered, just like a news story. Seriously consider using neutral platforms. Let the content fund the journalism, but allow the two to be separate from the main mission of the news organization.

Integrity: Remember the journalistic purpose of the work that is being done. Producing custom content should not be the equivalent to “selling your soul.” Be honest with the information in the content that is created. Don’t be deceptive about the brand or products.

Dorian Benkoil offered some suggestions for how to avoid problems with sponsored content in an article on MediaShift.org.

Recognize that newspapers, online publications and broadcast stations are brands themselves. They have cultivated a reputation for the type of journalism and work they produce to gain the confidence of their audience. They then use this platform to the benefit of advertisers. Examine the potential of this type of work. The definition of journalism is changing, and so is advertising. Custom content can produce material that informs the audience, in the same way that great journalism can, and even been journalism itself. The difference is in where the funding is coming from. Maybe newspapers need to rethink how they go about their product as whole, and their process of producing journalism and funding it with advertising.

Several major news organizations already have divisions in place to produce custom content. For example, The New York Times has T Brand Studio; The Toronto Star has Star Content Studios, and there are numerous private companies providing this service, staffed by journalists. The ethics needs to evolve with the advertising.

As a journalism student, I feel that I am more interested in being a good storyteller than covering hard news at a daily newspaper. For me, the idea of telling interesting stories for a brand seems like a possible path. Making ethical decisions according to Aristotle’s Golden Mean considers each individual circumstance, as well as previous experiences, in deciding how to act. I think it is important to not just write off new ways of looking at advertising simply because advertising and journalism are not supposed to go together. The Golden Mean allows for the flexibility that I think is necessary for news organizations to have. News organizations need to have their principles and ethics in place, but also should evaluate each situation and remember that they are trying to tell a story to their audience.

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Ethics Questions: To Quote the Person or the Statement?

A recent post on Margaret Sullivan’s Public Editor blog for The New York Times talked about how sometimes people are quoted through a statement, instead of quoting words they actually spoke. A reader who wrote to the Times wanted to “be able to distinguish between ‘what people say’ with ‘sayings people buy,'” according to the post.

“It’s an interesting question in an era in which the subjects of news stories try, in all sorts of ways, to control the message,” writes Sullivan. This is especially true when a subject is using a PR firm to control how they are being perceived.

A journalist’s job is to seek and report the truth to their audience, but when the subject of your story is controlling the way you get information, the truth you report may not really be the truth, or at least not all of it. So, like this reader wants, letting your audience know what kind of information you are giving them should be a consideration.

This is a problem journalists face often. High profile subjects want to control to coverage around them, and even people who are less used to dealing with the media may be nervous about being quoted. The job of the journalist is to be fair and accurate, but since loyalty goes to the reader and the truth of the story, sometimes these principles come in conflict with the demands a source is making.

Is it ever acceptable to allow a source to have some control over how they are presented?

The reader who wrote to the Times compared its coverage of an event with that of the Associated Press. AP explicitly said that the statement, also quoted by the Times, came from  a PR firm.

Philip B. Corbett, standards editor of The Times, responded about their use of the statement, writing, “More broadly, we don’t have a hard and fast rule, but I agree that we should provide readers whatever information or context might help them best understand someone’s remarks.”

It’s most important that readers understand the context of a quote to understand the bigger picture of the story. Especially when a story is big news, so clarifying that the quote is coming from a prepared statement never hurts.

Is it better to quote a prepared statement when that is all the comment you can get from the subject of a story? It may be better than nothing, but at least make it clear for your readers and let them decide how valid they think it to be.

Operation Correct the Error

Although I never did find an error, this assignment has made me think about the process of making corrections. I started my search for an error by checking out the local newspaper for my hometown, the Record-Journal of Meriden, Conn.

When I did not find corrections listed anywhere on the Record-Journal website, I reached out to the paper to ask about their correction process and received a response from Dan Brechlin, city editor.

Brechlin explained the Record-Journal’s process to me. Usually a reader will call or email to notify the paper of an error, Brechlin said via email, and then there is a verification process to determine if an error was made. A correction is made both in the print paper, published on the second page, A2, and online.

“A lot of our stories make it online before they ever see print. Stories can change throughout the day and develop throughout the day. Usually something requiring a correction, however, is brought to our attention after the story is printed in the paper,” Brechlin said.

Having stories run online and in print can make things interesting for catching errors. Depending on which story is published first, does one act as a “rough draft” for the other? Are readers aware when each change is happening to these articles online? Does the online story go out first and then develop to match what will eventually be printed in the paper?

“With the internet, people seem to understand stories are constantly changing and being updated and reported on…So if the story can very quickly be updated before print and a name was spelled wrong, people generally don’t want a full correction – just the name spelled right. If a larger error occurred or we made a bigger mistake, I would say it’s worth pointing out in a correction at the bottom of the story how/why the story changed and what the issue was,” Brechlin said. It seems to me like printing a correction in the paper is reserved for larger mistakes, and that the online version is used as an easier way to deal with more minor errors. This could be one way a smaller paper is able to deal with limited print space and resources.

“We have found people often don’t care much about the newspaper correction, they want to see it online though,” Brechlin said. He explains this as a result of readers saving online stories (no more newspaper clippings, I suppose) and wanting the information to be correct.

When compared to the New York Times, which has a separate corrections page, as well as a phone number and email address for readers to submit corrections and links to the original article, the Record-Journal may not be on the same level, but they do have a system in place to deal with the errors that arise, which satisfies their readers. 

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?

Ethics Guidelines

My personal ethics code will use Aristotle’s Golden Mean as the theoretical basis for developing my ethical standards as a journalist because of the emphasis on finding a middle ground between extremes and because it is not a “one-size fits all” approach. Nicomachean Ethics holds that virtues are an essential part of living a happy life, and that these virtues are also a habit. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains Aristotle’s argument that, “we must also acquire, through practice, those deliberative, emotional, and social skills that enable us to put our general understanding of well-being into practice in ways that are suitable to each occasion.” So based on upbringing and life experiences, people learn habits that enable them to make good decisions.

Making ethical decisions based on Aristotle’s Golden Mean is a process, which also depends on the facts of each unique situation: “finding the mean in any given situation is not a mechanical or thoughtless procedure, but requires a full and detailed acquaintance with the circumstances,” according to the Stanford article.

Aristotle’s emphasis on developing good virtues or my personal values and then taking into account the specific situation you are facing is the way in which I will approach making ethical decisions.

My upbringing has contributed to the values I hold today and how I approach journalism. I was raised in Connecticut, in the same town where my mother grew up, and primarily attended a private, religious school. I attended the University of Vermont and earned my B.A. in English. I also studied abroad in England and spent a year teaching English in France. Traveling gave me greater perspective of the world and my education gave me a love of stories and good writing. I find that these experiences influence what I prefer to write about and how I approach a story. They also have created the virtues that I use to begin my decision making process.

Professionally, and personally, there are several principles I will strive to uphold and use to guide my decision making. These standards come from a combination of my upbringing and background, as well as the values held by the Society of Professional Journalists and The New York Times and the Associated Press.

Truth:

I will aim to tell the true story with context and background. I will use a variety of sources and evaluate their credibility and the  value of information they can provide. Facts will be verified.

Transparency:

I will take personal responsibility for myself and my work, by striving for accuracy and correcting my mistakes. Objectivity is prized in journalism, but I feel it is not fully achievable. I will instead try to acknowledge my biases and diversify my sources.

Integrity:

I will act with integrity and aim to be honest, truthful and empathetic with my reporting and writing. I will hold myself accountable for my work and make independent judgements.

Fairness:

I will work to minimize harm by depicting subjects of stories, events and sources fairly and accurately. I will welcome the comments from other sides of an issue and tell the stories of people who are sometimes overlooked. I will evaluate sensitive information for its newsworthiness and not write anything, even if true, if it does not add value or is not essential to the story, that would damage my sources.

These core values will help me to uphold my professional standards and make ethical decisions.

Ethics Questions: “To Bleep or Not To Bleep?”

The Washington Post covered a debate at NPR over what kind of language can be used on air, more specifically, should  curse words be “bleeped?” Although this article focused on NPR and implications with the Federal Communications Commission,  which regulates profane language and issues fines, this raises some of the same issues for print and online publications.

Mainly, the issue is over the need to tell the truth, while also taking the audience into consideration. When a source uses a profane word, should that word be completely obscured from the audience in the quote? Is it ethical to remove to word completely? Or should the word remain in the quote, but dashes added to only infer what it is?

The New York Times policy says that “readers should not be left uninformed or baffled about the nature of a significant controversy,” according to an article on the topic from 2014 by Jesse Sheidlower. So printing a word to convey the truth of a story to the audience is allowed, but how do you determine in which case it is truly necessary?

According to The Washington Post’s report, Nina Totenberg, a reporter for NPR who raised this issue in a memo to staff, feels that “although she is no fan of crude language generally, Totenberg said the news needs to be presented without audio shackles, or at least so meanings are clear.”  Totenberg argues that editing these words can change the meaning of the information or leave audiences wondering what is really being discussed.

The Associated Press deals with profanity by using editor’s notes or “uses dashes on certain offending words ‘if the obscenity involved is particularly offensive but the story requires making clear what the word was,’ according to its stylebook,” wrote the Washington Post.

Partially obscuring a word might be a compromise between completely deleting a word, and then perhaps taking away some of the meaning or feeling of what was said, or leaving it completely unedited and offending your audience. The truth of a story or quote is a major consideration, but part of the debate remains a concern for doing so in an appropriate way.

Final Paper Snapshot

For my final paper, I am planning to look at the ethical impact of blurring the line between advertising and journalism. The traditional business model of journalism no longer works, but has not really been successfully replaced, especially in terms of digital. Is there a way for advertising and journalism to co-exist in a way that doesn’t compromise the publication’s integrity?

My focus will be on digital publishing and advertising, but I will also look at what the print-side of newspapers is doing. I want to see what new models are being developed and experimented with, and what the ethical considerations should be for journalists, especially when some media companies are providing their own marketing and advertising services. These business strategies may increase revenue, but do they leave the integrity of the publication in tact? Is it possible to have a reputation for top-notch journalism as well as innovative advertising strategies?

To explore this, I will look at research done by the Pew Research Center on individual newspaper’s strategies and digital advertising revenue, as well as “The Search for a New Business Model”.

Within my personal ethics guidelines, questions about advertising are mainly a question of transparency, but also journalistic integrity and the commitment to truth.Because I feel that objectivity and a lack of bias is unrealistic in journalism, I am interested in what can happen without a complete separation between advertising and journalism. Using additional research on Aristotle’s Golden Mean, I want to examine the possibility of a compromise. Native advertising poses an interesting question for me personally, because I am not opposed to sharing a personal point of view with reporting or advocacy journalism. Is there a place for native advertising and are there ethics codes in place? The Newspaper Association of America explored the issue here.

The most important part of a story is letting the audience know what they are getting, either an independent article or a sponsored post, and then letting them decide for themselves. Through my paper I hope to better establish my own beliefs as a journalist and also examine the possibility of quality storytelling that may blend the lines or “break down the wall.”