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Q: When is a news article not a news article?
A: When it’s paid to be read

By Sheryl Glubok | Special to the Vermont Guardian

Posted November 24, 2006

I was shocked and saddened when I opened Section A of The Burlington Free Press on Monday, Sept. 18, and found on page three, opposite an article entitled “U.S. wartime prisons hold 14,000 without charges or explanation,” an entire page of advertising composed of two pieces dressed up to look like news articles. One announced the availability of a non-FDA approved tablet that may or may not provide joint comfort, the other that millions of dollars in unclaimed money was available to the consumer willing to pay more than face value for it.

This type of advertising attempts to win legitimacy by copying the format of a news article with a serious sounding headline, byline, and the citation of supposed experts, not to mention typeface that is nearly identical to that of the surrounding news content. There’s even a word for it, advertorial, which according to advertorial.org, a website that provides such content for a fee, states: “It is widely known that people give more credibility to editorial content than to paid advertisements. After all, anyone can claim that their own product is the best. But editorial content suggests that someone else has endorsed your product or service.”

Type the word “advertorial” into Google and a plethora of sites come up, mostly promoting the use of this type of advertising as another arrow in a company’s promotional quiver, alongside others such as advocacy advertising, branded content, and promotional placement. I shouldn’t be surprised; after all, we live in a capitalist society built upon the promotion and purchase of product. And as we become more savvy consumers of media, should companies not become savvier in promoting their products?

In fact, advertorials are not new. Mobil Oil is credited with creating the form during the energy crisis of the 1970s. Believing that the company’s side of the story, regarding offshore oil drilling, was not being represented in the press, it purchased space in the editorial section of newspapers across the country and submitted text-driven content explaining its position. The campaign was so successful, it coined the term.

According to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, journalists must “[d]istinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.” While The Burlington Free Press did the minimum to label its advertorial page with an all cap “Paid Advertising” in a font size slightly larger than body text and underscored with a bolded line, it was not enough. In an informal poll among my colleagues, the majority had to look twice to see that the second article was also an ad.

If I were Patrick Quinn, author of the article opposite this spread, I would be livid. It is surreal to have reporting about how the country is failing to uphold our democratic values, in a war justified by the need to promote them, compete directly with newsy-looking advertisements about nutraceuticals, and sheets of uncut money.

In this time of war, we are all hungry for information that will help us make sense of what is happening in our world. Yet, The Burlington Free Press and other papers that print this type of advertisement are further undermining an already waning sense of respect for the media.

Ironically, this point was made on page six of this same newspaper edition by DeWayne Wickham. In his editorial “Rotting the Roots of Democracy,” he reminds us of how the Bush administration paid journalists to report favorably about its programs. Apparently, the administration also got the advertorial memo.

Yet, the president has also led a sustained attack on our most respected papers, particularly The New York Times, for being unpatriotic by printing what they considered critical information on the government’s potential violations of our privacy. He can’t have it both ways. Or can he?

Bill Adair, the Washington Bureau Chief for The St. Petersburg Times, in his Sept. 10 online article, “Corporate spin can come in disguise,” outlines three recent cases of “idea laundering.” This is when a prominent expert writes an op-ed espousing a pro-corporate line, while not disclosing that the writer has financial ties to the corporation. Examples include James Glassman’s criticism of Super Size Me, a documentary critical of McDonald’s, John Semmens’ praise of Wal-Mart as “a major force in promoting prosperity for everyone,” and Steven Milloy’s arguing against a windfall profit tax of the oil industry.

Interestingly, as reported by Adair, there is still debate among the editors of our leading papers as to how, and whether, to disclose this type of relationship. Some papers have begun requiring a signed statement by the author revealing any conflict of interest they may have upon submission of a column. Others, such as Susan Brenneman, the op-ed editor of the Los Angeles Times, believe the onus should be on the reader to discover those conflicts.

The Economist recently ran a cover blandishing “Who Killed the Newspaper?” citing the Internet as hastening an already decades-long decline in readership. While it’s clear that the established news outlets are in trouble, with circulation numbers and stock prices down for nearly every news organization, it is unclear whether the erosion of journalistic integrity is hastening the exodus. I think it is fair to say that it isn’t helping.