Editorial content should not be up for sale
This column is proudly brought to you by BMW. Or Mercedes Benz. Or Holden (if I’m desperate).
Advertising and editorial – traditionally uneasy bedfellows – are having uninhibited sex at the moment. Instead of protesting, we media sluts have joined the orgy, legs in the air like frozen chooks (from Steggles, of course – Steggles for quality).
How long before we see newspaper stories headlined, “Tony Abbott surges ahead in the polls” (sponsored by Nutri-Grain – Iron Man Food).
Or “Voters turn on Kevin Rudd” (Complete Control Counselling Services – Don’t let anger control your life!).
In an Australian first, television journalists are being forced to wear advertising on their t-shirts while broadcasting from a sporting event.
As well as the Channel 10 logo, reporters at the Soccer World Cup are walking billboards for Weet-bix (Breakfast of Champions).
Just imagine the penetrating post-match interview: “So what did you eat before the game? Just remind us, what should all good kiddies be having for breakfast?”
While sponsorship ‘stings’ precede sports and news programs, under the Code of Ethics journalists are “not to allow advertising or commercial interests to undermine accuracy, fairness or independence”.
Last month, clothing company L.L. Bean did a deal with Chicago’s WGN Channel 9 to dress their reporters, in exchange for a credit at the end of news bulletins.
If you think this doesn’t affect content, think again.
WGN’s Midday News on May 13 featured a four-minute fly-fishing story, promoting L.L. Bean’s outdoor gear.
Back home, finance analysts from CommSec, Hubb and Westpac refuse to report drops in their employers’ share price during TV news updates.
(On the day Commonwealth Bank shares dropped 13.2 per cent, the story was conspicuously absent from CommSec’s finance crosses.)
News directors are reticent to address the issue because finance giants pay a fortune for these advertorials, disguised as news content.
In the US, debate rages about the propriety of broadsheets publishing wrap-around ads, as they struggle with a steep decline in the value of traditional ‘spots’.
The Los Angeles Times recently tested the boundaries by running a garish image of Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, superimposed over what looked like the usual front page.
Fiercely opposed to the ad, editor Russ Stanton was overruled by the paper’s business executives.
A spokesman for the newspaper, John Conroy, said “It’s taking a concept that we normally apply to new media and reimagining it to a concept in a newspaper”.
Indeed, old media is taking its lead from those annoying pop-up ads on news websites.
But a line is crossed when it affects editorial.
In Britain, the Daily Express was pilloried for printing a wrap-around front page promoting the new Fiat 500, on the day after Barack Obama’s inauguration.
Journalists in Australia argued with Sydney Morning Herald editor Alan Oakley over his decision to run a wrap-around on the Singapore Airlines A380’s inaugural flight to Australia.
It was given editorial precedence over the death of the first SAS soldier in Afghanistan. That happened in 2007.
These days, wrap-arounds – like the one for BMW (The Ultimate Driving Machine) in Monday’s Australian newspaper – are met with barely a whimper.
What would happen if the lead story that day was a BMW recall affecting thousands of motorists?
Would the story be pulled – or the ad?
While radio is often cited as public enemy number one when it comes to blurring the line, magazines are the worst offenders.
Virtually every story about “miracle face creams” in health and beauty magazines is promised to advertisers as sweeteners.
Beauty editors who write purple prose about expensive products “taking years off your face” confide privately that the best skincare is a tube of sunscreen.
As media consumers, we should all don a mantle of healthy scepticism.
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