The danger posed to journalism by "sponsored content" - Michael's essay

"I realize that journalism has changed mightily over the last five decades. But some verities in our business are indeed eternal. One is the absolute church and state separation of advertising and editorial."
Sponsored content is nothing new, but it cannot be allowed to become commonplace, argues Michael Enright. (Erik White/CBC )
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On April 12th this year, The Globe and Mail published a series of stories all about vision and hearing health. The stories were well written, the graphics interesting.

Then in the June 6th issue of Maclean's Magazine, lightning struck again.

A three-page feature described the importance of maintaining healthy hearing for life. Again the writing was straightforward, the statistics compelling, the artwork first rate.

You would expect no less from two such substantial print publications.

Except the stories were not stories, the articles were not reporting — they were advertisements. It's doubtful that journalists for Maclean's and The Globe had anything to do with them. Chances are they were written by freelancers or PR companies.

One of my heroes in this game is the legendary US magazine editor John Mack Carter. It was he who once said: "The advertising manager is always welcome in my office; as long as he comes in on his hands and knees."- Michael Enright

The Maclean's and The Globe special sections were what's called sponsored content. Somebody paid green money to have them put in the paper disguised as real stories written by real reporters.

The Maclean's piece on hearing health was identified in small type as "a special interest section." The Globe identifier was a bit more to the point: it was "sponsor content." The stories were surrounded by real ads for hearing tests and contact lenses.

Sponsored content is nothing new. It used to be called an advertorial or a reader ad, designed to look like real editorial content.

On a Thomson weekly newspaper where I toiled eons ago, once a year, advertisers were promised an editorial story promoting their business if they bought a real ad.

With the disappearance and reduction of traditional revenue streams such as classified and displayed advertising and subscriptions, newspapers and magazines are looking for new ways to enhance the bottom line and stay alive.

One new way might be this idea of corporate journalism.

Sponsorship in the press is an invitation to corruption and abuse. Wherever money changes hands, something goes along with it — an intangible something that varies with circumstances.- American essayist E. B. White

The ethical argument over such advertising, again, is nothing new. In the fall of 1975, Esquire Magazine announced that its next issue would contain a long essay by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Harrison Salisbury. The insert would be paid for by the Xerox Corporation and Salisbury would receive $40,000.

Esquire's announcement stirred the wrath of America's greatest living essayist, E. B. White.  

White sent a rocket to Esquire and to Xerox.

His main point: "Sponsorship in the press is an invitation to corruption and abuse. Wherever money changes hands, something goes along with it — an intangible something that varies with circumstances. It would be hard to resist the suspicion that Esquire feels indebted to Xerox, that Mr. Salisbury feels indebted to both."

White acknowledged that a funded article "is a tempting morsel; for any publication, particularly for one that is having a hard time making ends meet."

His argument was simple: there is or was an invisible fire wall between advertising and editorial and once that wall becomes porous, free, unencumbered, open journalism is threatened.

In the face of White's eloquent warnings, Esquire backed down, Xerox cancelled the project and presumably Harrison Salisbury was out the forty grand.

It has been estimated that nearly 75 per cent of online publishers use this type of advertising. The Canadian Association of Journalists is looking into the whole problem of sponsored content.

Now, I realize that journalism has changed mightily over the last five decades. But some verities in our business are indeed eternal.

One is the absolute church and state separation of advertising and editorial.

One of my heroes in this game is the legendary U.S. magazine editor John Mack Carter. It was he who once said: "The advertising manager is always welcome in my office; as long as he comes in on his hands and knees."

Click the button above to hear Michael's essay. 

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