In what may seem a strange trend, traditional news outlets are increasingly publishing pieces drafted by corporate PR departments. Commonly referred to as native advertising or sponsored content, this practice involves long-form articles disguised as typical content, even using the same fonts and formatting. At its core, sponsored content represents a new and expanding corporate presence in journalism. The aesthetic of the page is intended to trick the reader into thinking the content is journalistic in nature. This trend has sparked debates over the ethics and consequences of sponsored content in media.
Dimes for Dollars
Tracking revenue streams to major media outlets helps shed some light on the growth of sponsored content in recent years. As Jonathan Rauch, a fellow in government at the Brookings Institution, explained in an interview with the HPR, the media faces a “dimes for dollars problem” in advertising. Contrary to popular belief, demand for news media has risen to historic levels as more consumers have acclimated to digital formats. The hitch, then, lies in the relative values of print and online ads. “The reason…is that no one has yet found a method of advertising online that does not actively repel readers,” Rauch said. While advertising supplements remain an anticipated feature of print media, very few consumers of digital media frequent sites specifically to view the advertisements.
This pattern, according to Rauch, reveals a “desperate need for journalism to find methods of advertising that are not repellent to readers.” Because sponsored content is meant to avoid the perception of obtrusiveness that renders online advertising ineffective, the value of sponsored content increases as it becomes less recognizable to readers as distinct from journalism.
Studies on the practice seem to support this conclusion. Researchers at the University of Georgia showed that while roughly two thirds of subjects failed to recognize sponsored content, the third that did had a lower perception of the article’s credibility and were less likely to share it with others1. The ability to blend effectively with standard content is the trait of sponsored content that has led to its growing pervasiveness as an advertising strategy. However, this feature of sponsored content typifies what many perceive as its deceptive nature, creating controversy over the morality of the practice and its implications for an independent press.
Consequences for the Media
One of the more contentious dimensions of the conversation surrounding sponsored content is the precise natures of the threat it poses to the independent media. The sensational, and to some extent more intuitive, conclusion would be that there is the risk of a quid pro quo relationship between the outlets that feature sponsored content and the sponsors themselves. Within such a relationship, the sponsors may be subjected to a lower degree of scrutiny by the outlets for which they are major sources of revenue. However, there is a far broader range of potential threats.
Ed Wasserman, the dean of Berkeley’s graduate school of journalism, remarked in an interview with the HPR that such risks have existed “since the penny press discovered that there was a better way to support news other than having subscribers.” A greater threat, according to Wasserman, is that sponsored content “institutionalizes and routinizes a source of contamination in public information flows.”
While this conception of sponsored content relies more on abstract notions than the fear of backroom dealing, the uncertainty of the claim is perhaps more fitting for the relatively uncharted waters of native advertising. Robert Drechsel, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin, said in an interview with the HPR that any assessment of the consequences for the media “enters the realm of speculation.” According to Drechsel, “the impact on the perception of journalism” to be the biggest issue surrounding sponsored content.
In Drechsel’s view, public perception of sponsored content—and ignorance of its prevalence—compounds the risks associated with the practice. Despite the very real threat it could pose to the independence of journalism, native advertising has maintained a low profile, largely escaping the accusations of bias that plague even the most straightforward political reporting.
How Bad Can It Be?
Despite the negative connotations of sponsored content, there are those who stand by it. Some from within the media and the firms responsible for the content, such as the marketing firm Edelman in a 2013 report, argue that oftentimes the content comes from trained journalists who ensure that the work meets high standards of accuracy. To that end, many of the writers of sponsored content are former journalists who entered the expanding corporate PR industry as traditional journalism jobs disappeared. This trend in hiring practices gives way to a second argument in favor of sponsored content: that many journalists would be out of a job were it not for the increasingly prominent mode of advertisement.
Most would agree however, that the primary argument in favor of sponsored content is that it provides much-needed revenue for the media. While some, such as Drechsel and Wasserman, are skeptical of the claim, Rauch views it as a reality journalists may need to accept. Certain critics of sponsored content point out an inherent hypocrisy in the claim. Wasserman, for example, found the claim untenable as it required deception “to support public illumination.” In an interview with the HPR, John Watson, a professor of media law at American University, phrased it in even simpler terms: “It is the equivalent of saying, ‘I must commit some crimes to raise money so I can continue to fight crime.’”
In defending sponsored content, even proponents acknowledge risks associated with the practice. The most hopeful arguments in favor of sponsored content are still relative calculations of risk that acknowledge the threat sponsored content may pose to journalistic integrity.
A Way Forward
Although the rationale for sponsored content raises little controversy, the question of who has the onus to respond tends to generate confusion.
“The burden falls almost entirely on the public to be educated media consumers,” Watson said. Wasserman meanwhile likened sponsored content to the craft of a con artist, a context in which many would conclude that the victim is almost entirely blameless. Taking the latter perspective, one conclusion is that a free media in fact requires some level of regulation to ensure honesty and retain public trust. However, such a conclusion runs into the possibility that the public may abdicate a civil responsibility of holding the media accountable and responsibly consuming information.
One point on which most commentators agree, however, is that the media need to work to clearly and plainly distinguish work originating from their editorial staff from articles that were written and paid for by corporations. In an era where fiscal incentives occasionally produce blurred ethical lines, the risks of sponsored content can be mitigated by resisting the incentive to make sponsored content seem as “real” as possible. The most prominent example of these best practices may actually be the New York Times’ T Brand Studio. A highlighted strip of text reading, “paid for and posted by” the corporation that sponsored it announces boldly the nature of the content to come in T Brand Studio’s section of the website. Even the URL indicates the presence of outside influence, adding the phrase “paidpost” before the rest of the link. These practices alert the reader to possible conflicts of interest.
“We all have to be … more introspective,” Drechsel said. “We all have … to ask ourselves, ‘Are we being responsible consumers of the media?’”