Monday, May 16, 2011

Who's buying the truth?

Advertising has always been an intricate part of the media. Commercials, sponsors and even product placement (see's Selling Out: A Brief, Highly Selective History of Product Placement at the Movies) have grown to be commonplace on both television and on screen. It's a balanced relationship too. Media programming needs advertisements to help pay for its production, and advertisements need media outlets to gain publicity.

The main criticism is that advertising is not just about marketing a product or a service. Behind every campaign is an expensive strategy that aims to psychologically impact an audience. Whether the goal is that a viewer will buy a new car or that someone's opinion on a congressional candidate will be altered, an advertisement always has the same intention: to instill its message into a viewer's mind.

There is a stark contrast between the framework of this profession and the ethical codes of any career in journalism. While journalists are first and foremost taught to strive for objective coverage, advertisers are advised to operate on a very particular point of view.

Traditional journalists can be criticized for the very same reasons as advertisers, however. As pointed out in "Ethics in Advertising," the truth is selectively disclosed in product portrayals shown in advertisements. Print and broadcast journalists too subjectively reveal the truth when covering a story, especially when reporting from an angle. In fact, many companies will provide news stations with video releases that are aired on news programs as "special reports," just like this clip:

Although this video, or one similar to it, may not be by definition an advertisement, it has the very same affect on an audience as an advertisement would. The purpose of an advertisements to influence a viewer to perceive something in a certain way. Journalists, as agenda-setters, determine what is news and thus what the public is thinking about. So when a report that looks at a very specific issue is aired on the news, that issue becomes news.

The crucial difference between advertising and traditional news practices is that advertisements function primarily as entertainment. The major problem is when the lines become blurred between whether something is actually newsworthy or simply being marketed. This is the case with advertorials, which are advertisements disguised as news stories, like this one for SuperFoodsRx.

Advertisements will always have a place in the media. In fact, their presence on television shows has become increasingly prevalent (see this clip from Jon Stewart.) Its when ads are inserted into the news that ethical questions arise. To avoid any misperceptions, news sources should always properly label which is which, and be sure to differentiate between the selling of a story and the actual telling of a news event.

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