Ethics and Standards in Online Journalism: Policing the Journalistic Frontier

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Advertising vs. Editorial: Church and State in the Digital Diocese

By its very nature, digital media brings advertising and editorial into a tighter relationship than print tolerates. Ad-targeting technologies such as Google AdWords and most display-ad networks routinely match ad messages with directly relevant copy. "Contextual advertising is very similar to something that the ASBPE [American Society of Business Publication Editors] does call a violation in print," says business media consultant Paul Conley. "Placing ads against editorial implies a relationship to the advertising." However, readers online not only understand this difference but even prefer it, argues former editor of PC World Harry McCracken. "Based on what readers told us, it made their research easier to see an ad for an HP PC next to a review of [the PC]."

Most publishers and editors maintain that their ethics rules are the same online as in print, but digital technology makes it harder to control the online page. In business publishing, a signature controversy over church and state in recent years surrounded "in-text" advertising, where keywords within editorial text are hyperlinked to a relevant advertiser. "That is a glaring example of a new style of violation where someone was selling material within the editorial well," says Conley, who crusaded against the practice for years. In 2004, Forbes editors forced the publication to end the practice, but the IntelliTXT product, sold to publishers by the Vibrant Media ad network, popped up again recently at Ziff-Davis and other sites.

The ASBPE rules state that ad links in editorial can occur only at the discretion of the editors and when disclosed to the readers. Vibrant Media contends in its editorial policy statement that IntelliTXT links "cannot influence, or be influenced, by the editorial team," because the real-time, automated process occurs only after the editorial is produced. This is not good enough, says Jeffrey Seglin, ethics columnist for the New York Times Syndicate. "[The reader] doesn’t know who is making the decision. Is it the technology?" Even worse, the technology may tempt editors to optimize their own copy in advance to include keywords that enhance "in-text" monetization. 

It is not that old questions of church and state or editorial accuracy are new to the digital age. It is that "these kinds of problems have ballooned with the new technology," says Roy Harris, senior editor, CFO, and former president of ASBPE, who serves on the organization’s ethics committee. "It is a more undefined relationship. It is amazing the number and variety of challenges that arise," he says. Increasingly, business publication editors contact the organization for help or advice about the new opportunities for business and editorial interests to blur, so the ASBPE recently created a standing ethics committee to field such queries more rapidly. 

Yes, technology allows ads a closer proximity to directly relevant editorial, but that doesn’t necessarily change the editorial principles behind it. "Pat McGovern started this publication with pissing off advertisers as one of his goals," says Computerworld editor-in-chief Scot Finnie. "I don’t think it changes. We are always exploring editorially in new media, but I don’t have any trouble with the most obvious differences." What does concern Finnie is the way online platforms allow vendors to become publishers, and trade publications such as his do have white papers and vendor research on the same site as independent editorial. "It is easy if we are not careful for visitors to be confused," so labeling is especially important. In print, these distinctions were more obvious, but online, it is necessary to think it through. "That is where everyone is now," he says.

New Online Advertising Models

Beyond the simple proximity of ads to content, new multiplatform business models can change the relationship between vendors and publishers. "There is a certain amount of experimentation that allows for some looser standards and less rigorous ethical practices," says Bob Steele, director The Poynter Institute’s ethics program. "How much should we borrow from the print side in our values and standards?" United Business Media’s Everything Channel is an example of an evolving B2B business model in which a trade publisher also now offers workflow tools and consultations, including product sales help to its own advertisers. Nevertheless, CEO Robert Faletra insists, "The essence of integrity still holds true," and his editors and business people are kept wholly separate. 

Undoubtedly, online media models encourage new minglings. Webinar and webcast formats sometimes blur a line that has been clearer with offline advertorial products, analysts contend. Many trade publishers offer custom webcasts that feature a sponsor’s product but also include preambles from the staff editors. Faletra says he instructs editors that their portion of the show is independent of the sponsors’, and they should say "what [they] believe and see in the market—then the vendor talks about their offering." But Seglin warns that online webcasting is different from the traditional third-party, live conference with editorial moderators. "When it is sponsored by the advertiser, then it becomes questionable who the editor is working for. Perception is everything. What message is this sending to the readers?" Harris concurs that sponsored webcasts involving editorial staff are fundamentally different from print advertorial. "In webcasts it gets more confused because the sponsorship seems more deeply integrated." Faletra counters that print traditions online are not quite apt. "It is a different medium that grew up in different ways," he says. He suggests that webcast models are less akin to print than to radio, where hosts often introduce advertisers. 

Yet the real hobgoblins live in the new distributions models digital media introduced, says Larry Rafsky, CEO  of Acquire Media, which aggregates thousands of feeds for institutions. He points to "bogus stock touts" as an insidious trap sprung on many content aggregators. Small companies will craft releases and false news stories that tie them deceptively to a story involving larger public companies. Search spiders and repackagers mistake these advertorial links as big company news, and they can quickly pollute an automated feed and link economy and can even show up in the feeds at major brokerage houses. "There are dozens of these a day," says Rafsky. "It is a cat-and-mouse game, and we do a very brisk business in keeping a list of bad actors."

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