Opinion

Native advertising is eating balanced journalism. It’s up to media companies to re-draw the line

Wesley GunterIn this guest post, Wesley Gunter argues that as the line between advertising and editorial disappears, balanced journalism has become an endangered species – and it’s up to media owners to save it.

Gone are days when it wasn’t too difficult to tell the difference between an advertisement and real news. Publishers and media outlets were meticulous about clearly labelling the former in order to preserve the editorial integrity of the latter.

Recently, though, publishers and media outlets have resorted to more “creative” tactics to get eyeballs and increase their revenue streams that blurs the lines between editorial and paid for content. Sponsored content masquerading as real news stories is one such tactic.

It seems these media channels did too good of a job blending their content, as according to a Stanford University study of 7,804 students from middle school to college, a whopping 82% of these students could not distinguish between an ad labelled ‘sponsored content’ and a real news story from a website.

What it means, according to this report, is that teenagers will most probably believe nonsense like “Eating seafood from Japan could give you cancer” based on articles with doctored pictures found on social media showing fish with human teeth (those are pacu fish by the way and although they look weird, they’re totally natural); or would take dubious self-serving financial advice from an article sponsored by an insurance company.

And, while this study was focused on just students, the issue of not knowing the difference between paid and unpaid media seems to be a growing problem among adults as well, which I have observed personally when speaking to some of my clients within my industry.

This leads to some pretty unrealistic expectations and some pretty uncomfortable discussions about what PR professionals can and should be doing.

Some of these clients seem to think that they are entitled to dictate whatever a journalist writes or when an article is published or are not happy when their brand is not the only one mentioned in a trend story. Others will look at me like there’s some sort of ‘catch’ when I tell them they don’t have to pay me for every article published by the media about their brand, as it’s my job as a PR practitioner to pitch stories to the press that they find newsworthy and hence will want to publish of their own accord.

However, as much as I want to put my finger through my eye, into my brain and swirl it around when explaining to these so-called ‘marketing experts’ and CEOs the basics of public relations and advertising, I can’t really blame them for thinking this way when publishers have been going out of their way to blur the lines between editorial coverage and sponsored content over the years.

According to an article in The New York Times, publishers and advertisers use many different names for this new form of ‘marketing’ apart from sponsored content, like ‘branded content’, ‘infotainment’ and the very creative ‘native advertising’ (oooh catchy!) all in the name of creating new forms of revenue.

Personally I applaud the use of creativity in certain sponsored content on lifestyle portals such as Buzzfeed with ‘clickbaity’ articles like 15 Bands That Probably Wouldn’t Exist Without Led Zeppelin by Spotify, where its harmless and fun to read for leisure and entertainment. I would draw the line though with opinion pieces on health care or investing sponsored by pharmaceutical or financial companies, which can be harmfully biased towards their own profit.

It gets even more murky when it comes to controversial topics like politics and environmental issues. And, to be devil’s advocate, I also can’t blame the media for seeking these alternative forms of revenue driven by a loss of income due to less advertising income and lower readership. While many may judge these media companies for ‘selling out’ or misleading their readership with false information, they’re just following the money by acting according to what can be measured and sadly there’s a large percentage of people that love reading ‘clickbait’ like cat memes, so it’s a self-inflicted wound.

Many of you would probably be asking ‘what’s the worst that can happen with sponsored content?’ Well it’s simple, the whole point of journalism and news is not for our entertainment but to keep us informed. Decades ago advertising was meant to support the news industry but it seems now the roles have changed.

This situation doesn’t just affect the reader but shakes up the very foundations of journalism as we know it today. Are Journalists supposed to present the facts without interpreting them, which makes articles impartial, but harder to understand without being told what is most relevant and why? Or are they to provide interpretation and context but lose their impartiality in their reporting?

You can remedy that partly by discussing both sides, but then how do you give weight to each side? For example, take the climate change debate, where 90% of scientists agree that man-
made climate change is a thing and only around 10% or so don’t. Showing both sides can actually make the 10% point of view look more prevalent than it actually is. The same goes for the vaccines causing autism issue and numerous others. So the question remains, how can you balance your reporting?

Ultimately no one party should take the blame for this situation as it takes two hands to clap.

The media has a responsibility to separate fact from fiction, and consumers need to know the difference between fact and fiction by educating themselves.

I’m all for freedom of choice, but it needs to be done within certain boundaries. You can’t put lipstick on a pig and by the same token you shouldn’t confuse news reporting with blatant propaganda.

This is especially critical now when the whole world is in panic mode and can’t seem to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not.

It’s time for media companies to take a few steps back and take up their traditional role of as valuable sources of information that the public can depend on, and not just as providers of entertainment and cat memes.

Let artists be artists, and let true journalism prevail. Blurring the lines between the two doesn’t serve anyone well. The consequences for us all can be dire.

Wesley Gunter is the public relations director of Singapore-based PR firm Right Hook Communications

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