Critical Thinking: By Refusing Advertising Dollars from a Political Candidate, Are Media Companies Able to Report Objectively?

“By refusing advertising dollars from a political candidate, are media companies able to report objectively?”


Erin McCarthy, 21, senior, Pennsylvania State University (State College, Pa.)

McCarthy is a print and digital journalism major and a political science minor. She has interned at The Philadelphia Inquirer for three years, most recently covering summer sports and Penn State football.

With the vitriol that has invaded the political discourse—particularly in this Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump presidential race—reporters and their organizations have come to question what for years has been viewed as journalistic dogma.

Take, for example, a lesson ingrained in anyone who has taken a journalism ethics class: Advertising sides and editorial sides of news organizations should be kept separate.

Sounds simple enough. Advertising dollars should never influence content produced because it could lead to biased coverage.

But in the 2016 journalism world, it is not quite so easy to apply such a principle. This after all is the age where native advertisements disguise themselves as articles and only discerning readers see the difference.

This year, BuzzFeed’s advertising folks refused to run Trump ads, comparing them to cigarette ads of the past.

On the surface, the decision itself is morally okay as long as no one in the newsroom influenced it, and as long as the decision serves the audience, not the organization itself.

Yes, a news organization can report objectively while refusing advertising from a political candidate. But before an advertising department makes that call—on its own without input from news side—it should remember that the average reader may have a difficult time viewing even the company’s most balanced work as objective from then on.

Outside of the industry, most people don’t know how media organizations work. Much to the chagrin of reporters, few read bylines.

But while readers may not know whom they’re reading, they know what outlet they are reading. They will associate accordingly.

After that advertising decision is made, readers’ perceptions of the company’s objectivity will be tainted before they read the first word of an article.

While professional reporters still will be able to do their jobs, the organization’s reputation will take a hit.

Even if a company does maintain complete separation between the business and news sides in making the decision, many readers won’t know the difference between the two.

With that in mind, organizations should tread carefully. The reader should be served first and foremost, particularly in such an important and contentious election year.


Kerry Hubartt, 67, editor, The News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Ind.)

Hubartt has been editor of The News-Sentinel since 2007. He began his journalism career as a sportswriter in 1971.

Deliberate bias in the media’s news coverage for or against political candidates should never be tolerated. But a recent Huffington Post article about a media company that is refusing to accept any political advertising from Donald Trump has pushed the issue of bias to the forefront in another way.

The digital news network BuzzFeed reportedly will not be running any advertising from the Republican National Committee this fall, according to CEO Jonah Peretti.

In the announcement, according to the Huffington Post, he pointed specifically to Trump’s rhetoric in an email to staff, saying the billionaire’s campaign policies are “directly opposed to the freedoms of our employees in the United States and around the world.

“We don’t run cigarette ads because they are hazardous to our health,” he wrote, “and we won’t accept Trump ads for the exact same reason. And as you know,” Peretti continued, “there is a wall between our business and editorial operations. This decision to cancel this ad buy will have no influence on our continuing coverage of the campaign.”

Really? Can BuzzFeed be expected to produce fair and balanced coverage of both presidential candidates while discriminating against one of them in that way? Doesn’t allowing messages in Democratic political ads that may attack Trump while denying the opportunity for a Republican voice nullify any promise by BuzzFeed of balance on the news pages?

The wall of separation between business and editorial operations Peretti described may not be so obvious to customers as it is to him.

If the company’s leadership at the top makes such a powerful stand against a candidate outside the bounds of the editorial page, doesn’t that beg the question of whether that leadership will be imposing their personal judgments upon those who write and edit the stories they use about the candidates?

Perhaps that question was already answered last December when BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith told his reporters, according to the Huffington Post article, “that referring to Trump as a ‘liar’ and a ‘mendacious racist’ was fair game because the terms are accurate reflections of his campaign.”

That’s his opinion.

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Published: September 15, 2016

2 thoughts on “Critical Thinking: By Refusing Advertising Dollars from a Political Candidate, Are Media Companies Able to Report Objectively?

  • September 15, 2016 at 8:20 am

    That BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Vice and similar sites — on right as well — are now considered part of the news media is proof that the world has changed.
    Their founders, investors and keyexecutives generally weren’t schooled in traditional journalism and aren’t much interested in “old school” standards. Neither are core digital audiences that prefer consistent reinforcement of their opinions rather than unvarnished reporting.
    Both Erin and Kerry are correct. Corporate-wide political engagement diminishes the good work of competent professional journalists.

    But credibility clearly isn’t a goal in this new media world. At least The Huffington Post makes it clear their stories could possibly include some spin when all of them about a particular candidate end with this:

    “Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.”

  • October 16, 2016 at 3:43 pm

    The whole story is very controversial. Many topic’s that can get a hole in my Head!



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