By: Karim Mostafa

Feature, Travel Coverage Blurs Lines, Editors Say

The blurring of the lines between editorial and advertising is most
likely to take place with ‘soft’ news like travel and lifestyle
sections, editors said last night at a forum sponsored by the Online
News Association (ONA) and the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center
at New York’s Newseum.

‘The wall will crumble in the softer sectors,’ said Farai Chideya, host
of Oxygen Media’s Pure Oxygen show. ‘There is a mushy spot on news
ethics on softer stories.’

Travel, real estate, and automotive coverage are the news sections that
most often provide access to purchasing on the same page, panel
participants said. Merrill Brown, editor in chief of MSNBC on the
Internet, said, ‘With some reluctance, we provide access to purchasing,
particularly in travel.’

Brown said of all Web publishers, ‘We should do our best to distinguish
between advertising and news, but the bottom line is that it’s still
very confusing.’

Rich Jaroslovsky, president of the ONA and managing editor of The Wall
Street Journal Interactive Edition, agreed, saying ‘We’re at a stage
where we can effect the outcome. The Internet gives us the ability to
marry information and action. It’s what the Internet does best.’

This strength of the Internet can present real ethical quandaries for
publishers. Imagine a business news story with a button at the bottom
that says ‘Buy Microsoft stock’ or ‘Sell Microsoft’ through an online
broker, Jaroslovsky said. It may seem preposterous, but book review
readers can already buy the book with one click at many sites. Can
stocks be far off?

The intertwining of news and commerce could lead to government
regulation, said Chris Hansen, senior staff counsel at the American
Civil Liberties Union. The Internet raises questions like, ‘Who is a
news publisher?’ and ‘Who does the First Amendment protect?’ If a site
is not a legitimate news site, government agencies like the Federal
Trade Commission can get involved, said Hansen, who pointed to links
between some health sites and drug manufacturers as questionable.

Hansen believes the DoubleClick fiasco is only encouraging government
involvement. ‘The government is eager and ready to get involved at this
point,’ he said.


Karim Mostafa (kmostafa@editorandpublisher.com ) is
assistant editor for Editor & Publisher Online.

(c) Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher

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