Newsrooms must grapple with issues of deception and conflict of interest.
By Meredith Levine and Esther Enkin
"Ev'rybody's doin' it. Doin’ it, doin’ it," went the 1911 Irving Berlin song, “Everybody's Doin' It Now,” about the big craze of the day, dancing.
Over a hundred years later, there's a new craze. And everyone, or almost everyone, who is anyone, is “doin' it”: The New York Times, the Guardian, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and Postmedia.
The craze goes by different names: sponsored content, custom content or native advertising. But the different terms refer to the same activity. As described by the Pew Center, it's "a publisher placing paid advertising content, written either in collaboration with the advertiser or directly by the advertiser, on its site in such a way that it mimics editorial content."
Like many crazes, sponsored content came on suddenly, but unlike most, it doesn't appear to be a short-lived phenomenon. Market research conducted by a subsidiary of Business Insider is estimating that almost US$8 billion will be spent on sponsored content this year in the United States, and that figure will come close to tripling in the next three years.
You can trace the rapid progression and absorption of sponsored content through our discussions of the topic on the Canadian Association of Journalists’ Ethics Advisory Committee.
It was just a little over two years ago when a committee member suggested to colleagues during a conference call that we explore the issue. To put it politely, the idea was greeted with a deficit of enthusiasm.
Why this response? To most committee members back then, sponsored content was a non-issue. Journalists shouldn't engage in it—end of story. The practising journalists on the committee were still, for the most part, untouched by the issue in their professional lives. No one on the panel at the time was willing to support or defend the idea of sponsored content. It was a knockout before the fight even started.
For us to roll up our sleeves and get to work researching a topic, we need some kind of motivation. In the ethical realm this means a perceived tension or potential conflict between practice and principles or principles and principles. The more closely matched the competition of ideas, the better. Three panel members—Esther Enkin, Meredith Levine and Tim Currie—still wanted to poke around the issue, but put it on the back burner while pursuing other work for the committee. About a year ago, we took up the topic in earnest. By then, things had changed.
Most of the committee members who were working in newsrooms or managing newsrooms were now grappling with sponsored content in their workplaces. Many wanted ethical guidance.
This led to strenuous debate about whether or not a committee of journalists ought to be providing guidance. We considered making recommendations on how this content should be labeled, or presented. We realized that was not the job of a journalism ethics committee.
We considered it inappropriate for the CAJ ethics advisory committee to provide best practices or ethical guidelines for sponsored content, for a very good reason: It is not journalism, by the CAJ's own definition.
Some committee members felt that if the CAJ ethics committee were to provide guidelines, it would, in effect, also provide ethical legitimation to a practice that many found deeply troubling.
There were others who felt we had to address the issue because it is so ubiquitous and is a reality for many of our members.
In the end, there was broad agreement that emergence of sponsored content raises two serious ethical issues: deception and conflict of interest.
We sympathize with those who must deal with sponsored content in their newsrooms.
And we think it is critical that journalists, editors and publishers acknowledge and wrestle with the ethical implications of this rapidly growing phenomenon.
What we have provided is a "discussion paper." We submit this as a first step to an ongoing dialogue—please add your thoughts and suggestions.