Trust in Media Is Dwindling—Only We Can Fix That


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I receive a lot of weird pitches and requests in my inbox. Mostly, this means I find myself shaking my head at emails that make it clear some public relations person is “spraying and praying” and sending irrelevant pitches to me. Beauty pageants. Politics. Doomsday survival devices. My favorite recent pitch was about women acting the same way as men in the workplace and why it no longer works. (Ugh!) I see all manner of silly pitches, but lately, a new kind of more insidious request is popping up.

Since the beginning of 2017, we’ve gotten several inquiries from people wanting to publish sponsored content on our site. That’s not a problem in and of itself. We offer sponsored content opportunities, which are clearly detailed in our media kit. The problem comes when these people make it clear they do not want the sponsored content to be identified as sponsored content. One even went so far as to ask us to publish her content under the name of one of our existing writers. Put simply, our answer was, Nope!

After that request (really, it was more of a demand), I wrote to our publisher: “I’m baffled. Who is agreeing to terms like this? It’s frightening. …” Someone must be, though, right? They wouldn’t keep pushing for it if it didn’t work.

We’ve all come across questionable content. You start reading or watching and quickly realize that it is just an advertorial—and there’s no disclaimer. But lately, this kind of deceptive content is becoming harder to spot. The pitches we received are from people wanting to write content that might otherwise pass editorial muster and seems perfectly relevant to our audience, but they also want certain links included. If you’re a struggling publication that is strapped for dollars, this kind of content might serve two purposes. Not only do you not have to pay a freelancer to write it, but you actually get paid to run it. Score! Right?

Well, not so fast. Presenting sponsored content, native advertising, or any other kind content that is not strictly editorial without a disclaimer is unethical. That is no longer up for debate. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has made it official. In the FTC’s “Native Advertising: A Guide for Businesses,” the rules are pretty clear: “A basic truth-in-advertising principle is that it’s deceptive to mislead consumers about the commercial nature of content. Advertisements or promotional messages are deceptive if they convey to consumers expressly or by implication that they’re independent, impartial, or from a source other than the sponsoring advertiser—in other words, that they’re something other than ads.”

It adds, “Disclosures must be clear and prominent on all devices and platforms that consumers may use to view native ads.” That is unambiguous advice, but in spring 2016, many publishers still weren’t in compliance. Media-?Radar found that about 70% of websites would not pass muster if the FTC decided to review them. Matters get even more complicated when you consider influencers. Yes, Kim Kardashian’s Instagram feed is subject to the same rules as The New York Times, and the FTC wants to make sure that whatever celebrities you might be following on social media disclose when they’re being paid to push a product.

I’m not particularly concerned about Kardashian support for waist trainers or whatever they endorse on social media, but as a journalist—and the author of Inside Content Marketing—I am worried about what publishers are doing. Especially in an era when Gallup says only 32% of poll respondents say they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the media.

It’s easy to ignore these findings if you aren’t covering politics or breaking news. It’s easy to say, “Oh, they’re not talking about us.” But the truth is, the average Joe doesn’t differentiate between media outlets. And when one publisher publishes paid content without the due diligence of disclosure, we all suffer.

There are more reasons than we can count that have contributed to the waning trust in media—many of which we can’t control. But making sure sponsored content is labeled appropriately is not only within our reach, it’s ridiculously easy. There is no good excuse not to.  


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