By Abir Hossain ’15
Many people believe that the American press is free and independent, but recent events have proven this is not always the case.
In recent years, most printed news has suffered financially due to the introduction of electronic means of accessing the news. Although printed news is where most original journalism is found, funding it has become increasingly more difficult. News organizations make the vast majority of their profits through advertisements. In newspapers and magazines, this was done through banner ads. This is difficult to do through the internet because over ninety-nine percent of readers only click on banner ads unintentionally. To combat this hurdle, many news organizations have decided to use native advertising.
Native advertising is an online advertising technique in which companies sponsor printed news organizations to present an advertisement and make it look like a legitimate article. These advertisements are almost indistinguishable from regular articles except they have small disclaimers at the top and bottom of the ad for legal purposes, although the disclaimers tend to be smaller than the rest of the print. Many people have been angered by news organizations that have embraced this idea because it misleads them into thinking that advertisements are real news. The growth of native advertisement began receiving widespread attention following a segment on Last Week Tonight when host John Oliver lampooned the topic.
Within journalism there exists a concept known as the separation of church and state, which says there should be a clear line that separates the business side of news and the editorial side of news. Native advertisement completely defies that concept and has editorialists work on these native advertisements in order to make them look like the news. Time, Inc. CEO Joseph A. Ripp is a staunch defender of native advertisement and has even developed a team to create native advertisements.
“As long as it is clearly marked, as long as the consumer knows the difference between what’s editorial and what’s native, I don’t see any problem with it at all,” said Ripp.
Despite his claims, native advertisement still remains a problem because according to a study conducted by the Interactive Advertising Bureau, more than half of the readers cannot tell the difference between what is native advertisement and what is the news as the fundamental idea behind native advertisement is to make it so the consumer cannot tell the difference. Furthermore, Ripp said he does not believe in separating the editorial and business side of news, even though many critics agree that it is the basis of journalism.
Time, Inc. is not the only major printed news organization to take part in native advertisement. Others include the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and even the New York Times. The New York Times managed to keep the native advertisement to a minimal, first only printing ads about the need for Dell Computers or about women in prison, which was really just an ad for Orange is the New Black, but they have since moved to more questionable ads such as one that writes about the benefits of Pepsi. The New York Times’ executive vice president of advertisement, Meredith Levien, defended the New York Times’ use of native advertisement by saying she believes that good native advertisement is not meant to deceive people but rather so publishers can share their story telling tools with the world.
The responses given by Ripp, Levien, and the executives and spokespeople for several other news organizations have been criticized for going against what they once believed were core values in journalism in order to turn a profit.
“These arguments that the New York Times and Time, Inc. are giving are clearly just excuses to continue using native advertisement,” said Michelle Zak ‘15.
Others, such as Ansom Mah ‘16, defended the fact that news organizations’ use of native advertisement.
“All companies need to make money, and if this is how these news companies are making money, they should be allowed to do so,” said Mah. “Each of those ads have a disclaimer that shows that they are sponsored by a company so technically, they aren’t doing anything wrong.”
Despite all of the criticism that these companies have received, the use of native advertisement cannot completely be blamed on the news organizations. Many of them only used it as a last resort due to the need for the revenue that native advertisement generates. Some of the blame can be put on the consumers as news organizations cannot be independent if there is no one who is willing to pay for it. The simple matter of the fact is that news organizations need to generate profits to function.
Native advertisement poses a threat for the future of journalism as it destroys what is considered the heart of journalism. Although profits are pertinent when it comes to running any organization, the means that these news organizations are pursuing to generate income have more negatives than positive and by using native advertisement, they are essentially damaging their own reputations as impartial journalists. It is for these reasons that native advertisement should be removed from news websites and be replaced by articles that actually contain the news.