The Canadian Association of Journalists’ ethics committee I’m involved with has been mulling over the issue of sponsored content for the past 18 months.
The entire committee had ethical concerns about publishing this type of content — advertiser-influenced articles designed to look like regular editorial. But as my committee colleagues Meredith Levine and Esther Enkin point out in a J-Source article, “everybody’s doing it.”
So, should we help news organizations navigate the minefields of this issue? Or should we come out with a more definitive stance.
In a discussion paper, Sponsored Content: How Should Journalism Ethics Respond to Advertising Dressed up as Journalism?, released this week, we’ve taken the latter approach. “Sponsored content is not journalism” we conclude.
Our committee’s 2012 paper “What is Journalism?” argued that journalism must meet the test of a disinterested purpose: reporters must act independently and draw their own conclusions. Against that standard, “content created to serve the private interests of those paying for its publication is not journalism,” we argue.
News organizations may try to label it as something other than journalism but readers are likely to miss those labels or misunderstand their meaning. It’s a murky practice and “it seems unlikely that journalists and news organizations can serve two masters simultaneously,” we argue.
In our paper we look at these ethical traps — of deception and conflict of interest. My particular contribution was to highlight examples of this content, using the models identified by American Press Institute. Take a look and let us know what you think.