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The separation of editorial and advertising

The separation of church and state-like line that has always existed between editorial and advertising is becoming nonexistent. In the last several years, this merging of two very separate, but co-dependent entities, has certainly evolved. But the kinks and ethics behind a more cohesive relationship have yet to be entirely figured out.

Earlier offenders include the Los Angeles Times, which used its front page as real estate in 2010 as a giant advertisement for “Alice in Wonderland” starring Johnny Depp. Other publications that have allowed the front page to become a space for advertisements include the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Parent & Child magazine and Esquire. Although some publications received some heat for these advertisements due to style and lack of transparency, others were executed in such a way that no one seemed to think much of it.

The Associated Press, for example, got creative when it recently used Twitter as a means to drop 140-character sponsored tweets. The backlash, however, was minimal. According to Nieman Journalism Lab, while some AP Twitter followers were put out with the ads mucking up their stream, others didn’t seem to care too much. Meanwhile, Twitter reportedly doesn’t have a problem with said tweets as long as the tweets are not spam-like in nature.

But blunders do happen. In Albany, the Times-Union ran a free, weeklong advertisement praising the benefits of local real estate agents after running a story that the realtor community didn’t like. BizJournals.com reported that in December, the paper ran an article that featured people talking about times when they had ignored a real estate agent’s advice. This angered the local realtors and brokers, causing some to pull thousands of dollars worth of advertising. In an attempt to rectify the “wrong,” publisher George Hearst wrote a letter of apology, in addition to running the full-page ad. Although advertising has been a sore point for newspapers over the last several years, it’s sad to see the separation of editorial and advertising become so obviously compromised.

In a more recent conundrum, The Atlantic ran an article disparaging the religion of Scientology, reported Forbes.com. In response, the Church of Scientology purchased an ad on the magazine’s website as sponsored content and touted the Church’s leader’s many accomplishments. Readers, however, were not happy and the magazine quickly pulled the ad down. In addition to the controversy surrounding the ad itself, CNN.com reported that it was clear that Atlantic staff were deleting negative comments about the ad story before it was pulled.

Another question that arises, according to Forbes writer Jeff Bercovici, is whether the magazine should even be taking money from a religion as controversial as Scientology. “A lot of people would say it shouldn’t. A lot of people would also say responsible media companies shouldn’t take ad dollars from oil companies, gun makers, fast food chains, junk food manufacturers, foreign governments with questionable human rights records, etc., or from financial firms with ties to any of the foregoing,” he wrote.

The Poynter Institute’s Jeff Sonderman makes a case for how news organizations can run sponsored content without lowering ethical standards. He wrote in a recent article that “tone and quality should reflect your publication’s values,” while working to serve the reader. If the sponsor is trying to make a “hard sell,” it most likely won’t work, he noted. Bottom line, if there is no other way in which to judge whether sponsored content is ethical, Sonderman suggested publishers and editors ask themselves, “Would I consider running this content if it wasn’t sponsored?”

Whenever advertising mingles with editorial, the situation gets sticky. Six or seven years ago, the idea of advertorials or sponsored content was, at the very least, distasteful. Today, publishers have to be creative and work to keep advertisers interested. No matter the situation, the ethics behind the actions should always be a part of the conversation.

–Katrina M. Mendolera

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