Journalism and marketing — where do we draw the line?

As the world of journalism continues to change — with layovers reaching peak numbers in the past few months — the demand for news agencies to be self-sustaining becomes more vital.

One of the few ways they do this is by generating profit through the use of advertisements. One such ad includes native ads — a cunning yet careful and structured marketing strategy that purposefully disguises ads as news articles. The use of native ads online have long been at the forefront of the journalism ethics debate in recent years.

The big question that has still been left unanswered is : where do we draw the fine line between profit and deception?

As a budding young journalist who is not yet exposed to the realities of “actual journalism”, I guess I still do adhere to the notion, and possibly a naive belief, that journalism should always be objective regardless, and that biases are a huge red flag. But really, is it realistic to think that way? Is it possible for a news agency to be completely unbiased?

Even at the Daily Iowan, the independent student publication that I’m currently working at, ads play a very extensive role in an editor’s everyday decision making. For the print version, ads, to some degree, influence how many stories run in a day. The ads section of both the publication and online versions essentially “bring the bucks” and is what drives the finances of the paper. Without ads, there would be no newspaper.

Here are some examples:

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An example of a Native ad in the Gazette Cedar Rapids

The kinds of ads embedded depends on the day and month. From my understanding at my workplace, editors — who determine news content — do not have a say on what types of ads make it into the newspaper. So because of this, in a sense, editors, have lost some control over content.

In my personal opinion, native ads pose a threat to people who are unaware of its existence. Even with disclosures and obvious indications that some articles are native ads, readers still manage to get confused thanks to a set of well-planted moves from marketing corporations. Some consumers might even be unconsciously buying into the messages shared through these ads.

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Ads in itself aren’t inherently treacherous; however, when it’s carefully distributed in such deceptive and quiet ways, it creates hostility and undermines the trust that the people have towards the media.

It is bad enough that the general public doesn’t trust the media, clumping every journalist in existence under the umbrella term “mainstream media”, and now, we are held responsible for native ads.

Ira Kalb, an assistant professor of marketing at USC’s Marshall School of Business, said in an interview to the Los Angeles Times, that native ads are “a big problem and it’s getting worse,” and because of their existence, “consumers are having a harder time knowing which media they can trust.”

In the end, is it the responsibility of news organizations to help readers understand these tiny trickeries? Should consumers be more educated on what materials they digest? Or should news agencies be held accountable for lack of transparency?

I believe contribution from both sides is essential to lower the negative impact of native ads.

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News organizations have to be more responsible when it comes to presenting their content. Although not every single employee is in the position to refute the use of native ads at their workplace, they should at least be conscious of the dangers the ads bring.

At the same time, consumers must have better judgement, they must be be critical of the information they receive.

I will echo a quote by Los Angeles Times contact reporter David Lazarus, he said: “The difference is that the goal of journalism is to inform and enlighten,” and that “the goal of advertising is to influence your thinking and behavior, typically to get you to buy something.”

There is a lot of truth in his words; journalism and marketing serve different purposes in “the industry”, and meshing them together will undermine each on its own.

Journalism is and should always be objective. Although to some degree, writers pursue certain topics because they “connect” with the ideas or are aiming to spread “awareness”; journalists are told from their fledging years that they have to be neutral by incorporating both sides of an issue. A stark contrast to marketing, which essentially tries to persuade consumers to incline to a certain direction.

In short, if journalists understand their role, they will try their best to adhere to the true values that come with it.

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