Critical Thinking: Are Native Ads a Smart Way to Engage Readers, Or Do They Conflict With Journalism Ethics?

By: Nu Yang

Critical Thinking: Are Native Ads a Smart Way to Engage Readers, Or Do They Conflict With Journalism Ethics?

As the popularity of native advertising grows online, some publishers and agencies say native ads should look more like editorial, not less. Do you think this is a smart way to engage readers with online ads or does it conflict with journalism ethics?    

Emily White, 21, senior, Roger Williams University (Bristol, R.I.)

White is majoring in journalism and legal studies with a minor in graphic design. She plans to apply to law schools this fall. White is currently employed at the online business management firm, Persona-Mill, as video editor, social media coordinator and copywriter. She is also the vice-president for the Roger Williams University’s chapter of Society of Professional Journalists.  

They are everywhere you click. Native ads. The increasingly prevalent form of advertisement designed to look like editorial content, verges on crossing the boundaries of journalistic ethics. In order for native advertisement to engage readers, it is disguised to look like editorial content. This practice breaches the public trust. Journalists are meant to be the watchdogs of society. Their job is to inform the public, not endorse consumer products. It is the job of the news media to report on industry news, among other things. It is a clear violation of the code of ethics to brand for financial gain.  

When advertisements begin to look like editorials, the public will perceive them as such, as a product the news organization supports. Readers respect editorials, especially from well-known news organizations like The New York Times. The audience who values the opinion of these trusted news organizations takes editorials to heart. Native ads made to look like editorials abuse that trust. The news media honor First Amendment freedoms and rights when they search for the truth. Along with these rights, come responsibilities to openly disclose sponsored advertisements in their publication.  

Interacting on the web is part of everyday life, and native ads are part of the experience. They allow the consumer culture in America to creep into another aspect of daily life. Consumerism is taking over and it is important news organizations protect themselves from this. The public needs to be able to differentiate between an ad and the news, and this is the news organization job. Journalists need to search for the truth, not promote consumerism. They need to watch the corporate companies and protect the public if need be. Native ads are not going away, but to become more like editorials, this is a violation of the code of ethics.     

Carol Crittendon, 47, advertising director, The Daily Herald (Roanoke Rapids, N.C.)
Crittendon began her career 17 years ago as a recruitment sales executive with the King County Journal Newspapers group in Bellevue, Wash. She graduated in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism/mass communications from the University of Northern Colorado. Her portfolio includes a media mix of classified, retail, magazines, targeted publications and digital media publishing.  

I believe native advertising, for a respected publishing company, will eventually cause readers to question the veracity of the publisher’s unpaid editorial content. If a company is willing to let paid advertising masquerade as unbiased copy written by the publication’s staff, the readers will leave that publication in search of the truth that isn’t ad copy dressed up in an editorial overcoat.  

Yes, native advertising that looks like editorial content conflicts with journalism ethics. I fully support the freedom of the press to publish content in any manner we wish, but I also vote with my dollars and can refuse to shop with any advertiser or read any publication or website that accepts advertising masquerading as editorial content. I don’t think we’re at a point where we want to lose readers in favor of advertising dollars. We create a worse problem if readers leave in search of the truth.  

As an advertising professional, I want to fiercely protect the most valuable commodity my company has to offer. That commodity is news written by a staff charged with setting aside their personal views and writing the best representation of the story possible. I don’t want them to step aside in favor of the story written by the PR team at Coca-Cola.  

The logical conclusion might be for publishers to throw their hands in the air, fire all editorial staff and let their “news” be “sold” to the highest bidder. If our top “story” today is about Chrysler being the best car company ever, but tomorrow the top “story” switches the spotlight to Ford, readers will no longer trust us.  

The choice to accept native advertising may seem innocuous now, but if the gold mine goes away with the readers, there really was no point in accepting the native advertising in the first place.

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One thought on “Critical Thinking: Are Native Ads a Smart Way to Engage Readers, Or Do They Conflict With Journalism Ethics?

  • January 26, 2014 at 7:53 pm

    Really great article. I appreciate how you lay out the potential perils of native advertising. It seems to me the crux of the issue lies in the trust factor between the publisher and the audience.. If the ads seek to deceive, then the trust is ruined. But is there a space for branded creative content that adds value to the reader? If so, I think that is where the silver lining is? I run an online art and culture publication entitled Wine & Bowties, and we’ve been hesitant on running banner ads for years because they take away from the UI. Thanks again for the thoughtful post


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