“So what’s the problem? We didn’t tell them what to write.”
Why did I pick this one example, the automated insertion of an advertising link into the editorial product, as the one ethical transgression (out of so many) to give rise to such a reaction?
Because I’m pretty sure too many of you don’t even see the problem. Yes, it might seem small. Indeed, most of the most-dangerous incursions of advertising into editorial are small. That’s what makes them so dangerous. It’s too easy to make the argument that just this one small adjustment to accommodate an advertiser won’t really hurt anything. Yes, we’ll do it … but just this once.
It’s easy to spot and to manage the big interactions between the business side and editorial. That’s why we insist they must be labelled “Advertisement,” “Publicitate,” “Promotion,” etc. And we, as readers, have come to expect those. They’re marked correctly and usually separated visually by either a different font or placed in a box.
No, it’s the “innocuous” inserts that will destroy publications – and this is where my dismay comes in regarding these online links embedded in stories. I’m not naïve to the fact that unscrupulous journalists and editors will sell anything to anyone willing to pay. It happens everywhere. It has always happened.
It just never occurred to me that there would come a day when there was such a gross misunderstanding of (or complete disregard for) journalistic standards that publications would not even attempt to hide the fact – so twisted over time things have become.
I’m sure some of you will dismiss this and scoff at the idea that this is such a big deal. Others might shrug and think there’s nothing you can do. Still others probably believe I’m much too idealistic and simply don’t understand the realities here.
The superficial defense of this practice is, of course, that nothing in these articles was changed. The articles were written. No influence was attempted. The reporter or commentator changed nothing. They wrote it the way they wanted. It was only after the fact that an advertising link was inserted. What’s wrong with that?
Well, make no mistake, that’s superficial at best, and dangerous at worst.
Not sure? Try this analogy: Your sister is in love. She and this guy have been dating for a while and he spends the night sometimes. So what do you do? One day, you convince him, as he walks out the door, that he should start paying every time they have sex. But only after they have sex. You won’t tell them what to do. You’ll only charge after – and only – they decide to have sex. And what’s wrong with that? Why shouldn’t you charge if he’s willing to pay? They’re going to have sex anyway. You’re not influencing that. So why not? You need the money. It’s a crisis, remember?
So let me ask you: now that you’ve done that, what does that make your sister? Or rather, what does it appear to make her? Not to you perhaps, but to the rest of the world? Did nothing, in fact, substantively change?
And if in principle, you think of all this is fine, then how about the following? Why not take Andrei Plesu’s photo (the one he uses with his column – the column that contained a couple of those links for some real estate development in north Bucharest), and photoshop a Nike hat on his head? Or a can of Heineken in his hand. Or tattoo his forehead with the Cosmote logo. Why is that different? Whether it’s his words or his photo, it’s just product placement and it’s after the fact. Nobody influenced him. It didn’t change the content.
Or, if that’s still too confusing, forget the morality of intention and the nature of prostitution. Let’s look at it this way. I was told by someone that there’s really no harm in what happened because the readers know the difference. An editorial link, back to a story or a subject, in the online version will highlight words in blue. This advertising link highlights the word in red and underlines it twice. The difference is clear. There can be no confusion. Unless, that is, you then read Ziarul Financiar, because there on its website the words colored in blue are the advertising links and they underline once when you put the cursor on top. (Here’s a rhetorical question: shouldn’t a newspaper that is supposed to explain business to its readers understand better the business that it is in?)
But readers can tell. Really? I wonder. And how would they know this? By comparing the two and figuring it out? Well, maybe they can, though that’s really not their job. Still, maybe readers are that smart. But I can tell you about too many occasions, when I was a reporter or editor, when our readers would call all confused or upset over something we had no control over at all. The headline was bad (reporters don’t write headlines). The picture was wrong (reporters don’t do that either). The paper was torn. The paper was late (editors don’t deliver papers). The ink was all smeared. The ink was too light. We should write more about aliens. (Ok, we could have done that.) No, readers don’t know how newspapers or magazines are put together and actually, they don’t care. (Actually, that’s true of the business side of the publication also. They don’t know either.)
So what you’ve done here is further the confusion and seriously mixed up your message. Are you telling me a story or are you selling me a product? Did the advertiser pay for the story or just that one word? At least advertorials (usually) get labelled as advertorials and when they don’t, even managers usually know that that’s wrong. So as a publisher of news, will you start running small explanations – just to clear up confusion – that this story, this time, was clean and was pure?
Or are you all right with confusing the readers? Like now when we watch movies and see a big sign for Coca-Cola on top of some building in the middle of a city. Was that sign already there when they filmed the car chase? Or did Coke pay for it to be added after the movie was done? Because we all know that in movies, everything is for sale. Are you suggesting that now it’s true in newspapers as well?
And you’ve forgotten one thing: That’s fine in entertainment. The integrity of a movie is to create and entertain. There’s no subterfuge or agenda, just a story to be told. You pay people to be in it. So if someone pays you to be included, there’s no problem with that – that’s the business of movies – as long as the story is good.
Your job is even simpler. Watch the world and tell us what you see. You don’t need imagination or a crew or a big, fancy set. Simply look straight ahead and write what you see. And if we trust you, we’ll believe you. And we’ll pay for your stories so we can see the world, too.
That’s where integrity comes in. Yes, you must have integrity, so we can believe what you say. You can give your opinion, as long as it really is yours. And to trust you (as with anyone) you must not only have integrity, but you must also appear to have integrity or we will doubt what you tell us. So not only must you avoid true conflicts of interest, but you must avoid the appearance of conflicts. (This is so basic it feels silly to have to explain it.)
Otherwise, we suspect, you are being paid to see the world in only certain ways. And to readers, at that point, you are but entertainment or propaganda – and we get plenty of those elsewhere (and they do a better job) without paying for you. So in the end, I ask you, are you still a “quality” paper? Integrity is the quality and without the first, there cannot be the other.
Now I’ve worked in the press here. I know many people who work in the press. I’ve heard the stories – whether true or not, I don’t know – about the media blackmailing companies for advertising, threatening never to mention their name if they refuse to write a check. I’ve heard stories about someone accepting an even bigger check to agree never to report unfavorably about a particular company. Even for here, that seems pretty extreme.
Typically, of course, its more insidious than that, poisoning the industry more stealthily and venomously. All you must do is mention an advertiser. Change a word here. Quote that guy there.
No, none of these alone will kill the publication. So go ahead, write your stories about that wonderful product. Then make sure you place it next to the big ad, the one from your client. Or do whatever the politicians tell you while they have their temporary moments of political power. (I see some of you finally got their ads, but you know it won’t last.)
And while you take a few extra lei to the bank that month, watch as your circulation falls steadily over time. Because what you’ve just written – and then used to fill your pages – is of interest to no one. And soon those same no ones are the very same ones who will stop buying your paper.
“If their ideas are so good, let advertising write the stories.”