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News channels skating the endorsement line

April 28: Over the course of a year, there have been multiple reports that the lines between advertising and editorial have dangerously blurred. Last month, inVocus featured an article on the questionable placement of ads on the front pages of newspapers and magazines. But it’s not only happening in print media. Advertisements that resemble news segments have caused some critics to raise their brows.

Last week, Los Angeles Times reporter Jim Rainey reported how a reader had contacted him regarding 90-second segments aired on Los Angeles-based KCBS-TV. Resembling a news brief, one piece in March featured station health reporter Lisa Sigell interviewing a doctor from the City of Hope Medical Center on colon cancer. In all actuality, the medical center’s website notes that it was part of a regular series of “targeted medical informational advertisements.”

“We employ policies that are commonplace at the L.A. Times and throughout the industry to present advertising in such a way that is separate and distinct from our newsgathering efforts,” station spokesman Mike Nelson told the Los Angeles Times in a prepared statement. Except it wasn’t clear that this was an advertisement, Rainey wrote.

“This kind of thing promises to become the norm. With technology that encourages television audiences to fast-forward through commercials, advertisers are determined to find new ways to get eyeballs on their products,” Rainey wrote.

Also skating the line is Los Angeles’ KTLA-TV, which according to Rainey, aired an hourlong Ford-sponsored special the day after the station ran a three-part series on the automobile manufacturer. Although the program was followed by an on-screen disclaimer, the placement of the series and ad is considered a no-no in most editorial circles. Like in print, putting an advertisement next to an article about a similar product makes it look like the outlet might just be endorsing the product. Rainey noted that a viewer had called him wondering whether all the coverage on Ford “wasn’t just one big sales job.”

In January, TVWeek listed several stations that had similar offenses against them, such as San Francisco’s KRON-TV; Atlanta’s WSB-TV; and Media General-owned WSPA-TV in Spartanburg, S.C.

This practice was a topic of discussion at the recent Radio/Television Digital News Association Annual Convention, noted Bob Papper, a former radio and television producer and current professor and chair of the journalism, media studies and public relations department at Hofstra University. “It was clear to me in the discussion that there are stations skating dangerously close to the [ethical] line,” he said. “The media industry, regardless of technology, print, broadcast or online, is generally having a tough time of it these days, so they’re scratching for whatever they can find.”

Whether a station argues it follows ethical guidelines, and critics say it doesn’t, it’s really up to the audience, noted Papper. “If the audience thinks they’re watching bona fide news done by a reputable news outlet and it’s not, then it’s wrong,” he said. If the audience knows they’re watching an advertisement, then it’s understood that this is how the industry supports itself, he added. Overall, he said, it’s a self-defeating strategy. The viewer not only loses trust in the news source, but it also devalues the product.

In a 2006 survey, Papper found news directors were usually more concerned with station endorsements or product placements than the consumer. He optimistically believes that the same holds true four years later. “What I was pleased about at the conference last week, as best as I could tell, most of the news directors were very uncomfortable of even skirting that line too closely,” he said.

“What the news media is heavily selling is trust and I don’t think you get to violate that before you don’t have any,” he said. The public already has a jaded sense of the media, if transparency is diminished, the existence of trusted news sources may be a thing of the past.

— Katrina M. Mendolera

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