Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Thou Shalt Not Brand Thy Content

Julia Brown

Ethically Wrong

Journalism and advertising have a long and complicated history. Without ads, journalism wouldn't be able to survive. At the same time, journalists should strive to operate independently and without any bias from outside influences, like advertisers. If journalists bend to outside influences, they lose their ethical credibility. But what happens when the lines between journalism and advertising begin to blur?

Branded Content

Recently, advertisers have come up with a clever way to make it appear as though journalists are acting independently, but in reality, they are sending their own branded message across. Branded content is controversial, but it’s also a growing part of modern media.

In branded content, a story is typically written as a traditional news story, but features a specific product or service at the pinnacle of the story. To an inattentive reader, these stories might seem like any other news story, which is the purpose of branded content from an advertiser’s point of view.

However, the media is supposed to be honest and transparent in its reporting. Does this even constitute as reporting? What about accepting free promotional materials in return for a favorable “news story” about a specific product?  Are any of these actions okay?

Ethical Journalists

For a journalist who wants to maintain ethical integrity, none of those actions should be okay. If a reader were to read an article that is considered branded content, or native advertising, but thinks it was written by an independent journalist, doesn’t that defeat the purpose of honest journalism? 

As we examined earlier in the semester, there is already a lot of distrust surrounding journalists. Should the media really heighten that distrust or play into the stereotype – now made famous by Donald Trump – of the corrupt media?  Without independent reporting, what integrity would we have left?

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Branded Content Business Model

Jonah Peretti, the CEO of Buzzfeed, has said that 100 percent of Buzzfeed’s revenue comes from branded content. This statistic is not surprising when you consider articles like, “Which Donut Are You?,” which advertised Dunkin’ Donuts and “11 Jokes Only “Call Of Duty” Fans Will Get” for Call of Duty.

Perhaps, as branded content becomes more and more popular among media outlets, consumers should come to expect and be aware of branded content.  In that case, however, we should change our codes of ethics to exclude independence and transparency and include clauses about branded content.

On his show “Last Week Tonight,” John Oliver considers the separation between advertising and editorial, otherwise known as the separation between church and state, the heart of news media. I would agree with that sentiment. Without truth and transparency, news media is left with little credibility and little true reporting. 

There is a reason that transparency and independence are included in codes of ethics, like that of the Society of Professional Journalists. Nobody wants to read sponsored content all the time – nor should they be forced to. If every article written becomes native advertising, consumers will begin to drop faster than that publication’s morals.

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