New frontiers in journalism ethics? Exploring ‘branded content’

Brand journalism is as old as time itself, but how it is identified for public audiences is more important than ever.

Blurred lines: In a world of endless content opportunities, the boundaries between editorial and advertising should be distinct

The issue of “branded” or “advertorial” content — or whatever you want to call advertising content that looks to sell a product or a political cause dressed up to look like news stories — has been around for many years.

When it first surfaced in my professional consciousness way back in 1971, however, I had to remember that newspapers themselves got started in the late 17th century (in the English-speak world at any rate) by being “branded” from head to toe — at least to the political cause they were created to champion. Strong whiffs of foundational political roots can still be found in our newspapers and digital news media sites. In Toronto, for example, the Toronto Star remains true to the Atkinson Principles, while the National Post was specifically created to provide Canadian readers with a “conservative” voice.

Today, branded content is specific and has become deeply embedded in multiple publications on all conceivable platforms. There are some useful perspectives shown, along with advertorial flourishes that may be debatable. Whatever.

At the National NewsMedia Council, which is charged by its members to defend ethical journalistic practices, we see nothing wrong in most of this stuff provided that the branded articles are properly and clearly identified by being wholly separate from regular editorial news content. Members of our council take a very dim view of any slippage in this area if this is not done properly.

It can get more complicated if the signposts — dramatically different typefaces, for example, or boxed explanations on how editorial matter was commissioned — are indistinct or non-existent. This is something I definitely know about.

One of my earliest professional experiences was circumnavigating a new job through a little minefield of conflict. It was at the old Toronto Telegram and I was only a couple of months into my first full-time job, and was anxious to get out of my entry-level assignment with the overnight police desk. I had made this desire known to one of the youngest editors, and one day, in my office mailbox, he left me an assignment.

I was to go to a new housing development out near the old RCAF base in Downsview, Ontario and write up an account of some of the model houses which had just been opened. I was told to report to a staff photographer who would show me pictures already taken of a model house. These would help me frame my feature article. The adjective “glowing” in front of feature article was not in the memo. Somehow I saw it there — and it incensed me.

I also wasn’t that naïve, even in those far-off days. I knew a set-up when I saw one, so I marched right up to that particular assignment editor’s desk.

“I won’t do it,” I said angrily to the editor as I thrust his assignment notice practically into his face. “If you want floss, get someone in the advertising department to write it.”

The photographer told me that two full pages of ads for the development were in the works in which would be set my article. The editor took back the assignment sheet and reread it while I seethed in front of him.

“My mistake,” he said calmly. “I made the assumption you were a journalist and could do the story. Sorry if I was wrong.”

That just enraged me even more, of course, but there was something in his voice that brought me under some control. That and the fact that I was still on three-month’ probation!

“I am a journalist,” I blurted out. “This isn’t journalism.”

“Oh really,” said my editor. “I hadn’t realized there were assignments that real journalists couldn’t manage professionally. As I said: my mistake.”

His tone was so infuriating that I grabbed the sheet back out of his hands and stormed off, because I had an idea. It was pretty straightforward idea, if a little calculated. I went out to the housing development, dutifully examined the model house, and then went around to some of the barely finished houses on the estate that already had occupants.

“I am a journalist,” I blurted out. “This isn’t journalism.”

It didn’t take long before I found some angry new home owners who had things to say to my little tape recorder, critical things, fault-finding things. Revved up, I returned and wrote a pretty good yarn about the contrasts between the model house and the troubled ones I tracked down.

I left my copy in the editor’s box. When I returned the next day, there was a note waiting for me.

“Thanks for the piece. Glad to see you are a real journalist.”

What subsequently happened was all of a piece: the story never appeared and the two pages of ads were accompanied by a photo spread captions cadged from the interview I had with the salesman at the model house. But I learned a great lesson which has led me on my way for 40+ years through the valley of the shadow of advertorial and branded content. If properly presented and identified, it can be a useful addition to specific audiences, generate revenues for news media in general and even reinforce the value of real news.

And, in the end, here’s the real issue: In the climate we inhabit these days of misinformation, skepticism, and questioning about trust in news sources, all of us in the journalism profession and news business should be attuned to the need to be transparent about labeling content and helping readers understand how editorial decisions are taken. Just over a year ago, the NNC published a white paper offering background and guidance on branded content for the use of any of our members. You can read it here.

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John Fraser is the Executive Chair of the National NewsMedia Council of Canada

This story was edited by: Brent Jolly, editor, Acts of Journalism. He can be reached at: bjolly@mediacouncil.ca

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