Who’s really in charge of the reporting we see and read?
I once had a homebuilding client who advertised heavily on local TV newscasts. When she heard that one of the stations was planning to run a consumer investigation story exposing wrongdoing by her company, she was shocked. “How could they do that to us?” she said. “Obviously, we need to step up our spending on the station. Then maybe they won’t run the story.”
That naïve assumption came back to me this week as I read that BuzzFeed had recently deleted a few posts that were critical of, or at least snarking at, some of its advertisers. And the advertisers weren’t afraid to flex their muscles to complain.
While old school journalists valiantly defend the wall between editorial and advertising, that wall is slowly melting. Do we expect some publications to have stricter rules than others? Who’s going to be watchdog of editorial integrity? Do people really care if advertisers gain more sway over news and reporting?
Just as “advertising” and “content” are loosely defined, so now “news” “reporting” and “journalism” seem to blend depending on time, context, and location. Consumer brands don’t control the news — at least not yet. But brands do assert control over their image, and corporations don’t like being portrayed in a negative light. It’s not hard to see why an advertiser would persuade a media outlet to kill a potentially damaging story.
We also don’t live in an age of full disclosure. I recall interviewing at an ad agency that had many hardware brands as clients. As the Creative Director and I walked past a hallway full of framed magazine articles spotlighting the client’s products, I marveled at all the great coverage the clients received. “Oh, our PR department sends free sample products to the magazine editors. They always get positive articles that way.” I assume that reciprocity exists for many brands and publications.
But we’re at a real crossroads now. As some of the more traditional media outlets — think newspapers and magazines — lose subscription revenue, they need new sources of income. And as publications like BuzzFeed dive headfirst into more original reporting, they need advertising revenue to stay afloat while offering their product for free. All of this puts advertisers in the driver’s seat to use more influence.
News and journalism, for the most part, is expected to be a profitable business. So that dependence on ad revenue will only become more pronounced. As news morphs into “news you can use,” listicles, or human interest stories as opposed to what actually happened in the world yesterday, you’ll see brands become part of the news more than ever. It’s why Apple is news. Uber is news. RadioShack is news (or yesterday’s news).
This gives advertising agencies, PR firms, and all sorts of other creative companies the opportunity to fill the gaps with brand-related content. And that’s a conflict. Brands and companies deserve scrutiny over their business practices when it’s rightly deserved. That means reporters and journalists need the power to be critical of brands without fear of reprisal or their stories getting killed. If the reporting is sloppy or misleading, then yes, it deserves to be called out. It’s a two-way street, and brands shouldn’t dictate who travels down those streets.
I’ve been an advertising copywriter a long time. And even before it was called “content” or “native advertising,” I’ve worked on collateral assignments where the POV was intended to be a somewhat neutral presenter of impartial information. But there’s always an agenda bubbling under the surface. Marketers aren’t altruistic. The end goal is always to promote the brand a favorable light.
We spend countless hours doing research, planning, and creative to carefully craft a brand’s public image. Controlling the news around a brand is merely the next phase. The lines between editorial and advertising will continue to get blurred. Advertisers will assert more control over the outlets we get our information from. It’s up to us in the advertising industry to decide whether this increased power will get abused or not.
It’s also up to us to decide, for our industry, for consumers, and for society as a whole, whether any of this truly is good news.
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
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