On the webpage with their news coverage of the Presidential debate Wednesday is a twitter feed from the Obama campaign's "Truth Team," in full spin mode. Has the Post wiped clean the old line between news and opinion? Has the Post abandoned objectivity and publicly jumped on the Obama bandwagon?
Well, in this case - not blatantly. Regular readers of the Post's online edition may have noticed that that upper right third spot on the Post's website is for reserved for advertising. And if you look real close at the grey bar over the Obama campaign logo, you'll see in tiny grey letters against a marginally lighter grey background the word "Advertisement."
Ask the Post and they'll tell you the Obama campaign bought the online ad spot. The Post has every right to sell that spot, and the campaign has every right to buy it. But did anyone at the Post even consider that letting a third of their debate coverage page be content fed directly from a campaign might give the appearance of a conflict of interest or favoritism? Particularly as the campaign's content isn't reviewed by the Post, is tied to the Post's content, and where the ad's formatting of their content mimics the Post's own twitter feeds and fact-checking efforts.
I don't know who was responsible, or whether they even considered how it would look; but at least some on the news side thought selling significant online ad space on newspaper websites to political campaigns was considered sufficiently newsworthy to do a story on another Obama campaign buy on a newspaper's home page. The Obama campaign bought out most of the landing page for the Columbus Dispatch, with the ad's message tied to the lead story (at least at the time of the screen capture below) on the start of early voting.
At a minimum, these illustrate the collapse of the wall between editorial content and advertising. The ads are substantial and atypical - significantly larger than the typical ads incorporated in the webpage layout and format. They are also tied directly to the news content of that page.
Twenty years ago, editors strenuously objected to selling large ads promoting products that were the focus of editorial reporting (or reviews) - and at a minimum insisting they had to be separated from the content to avoid the appearance that advertising support may have influenced coverage. Within the last few years news organizations have openly supported a campaign to require that bloggers who write about products or services publicly reveal any direct or indirect payments received (advertising, in-kind products, etc.) related to the things they post about. Today, the VP of Dispatch Digital, which runs the online edition of the Columbus Dispatch, welcomed similar buys from all campaigns.
Do these, and similar instances, mark the end of the solid wall between advertising and editorial content? Should we be even more concerned that the advertising in question is political advocacy, and is co-located with "news" coverage of the same topics? I've been around long enough to have witnessed myriad ethical debates focusing on avoiding the smallest hint of an appearance of outsider influence on editorial content. Its tough economic times for newspapers, and for many the ability to grow online revenues is important. Still, I'd argue that maintaining the underlying value of a news outlet as an honest and reliable source of news and information is even more critical to keeping the outlet valuable to news consumers and long-term success in the news market. Intermingling news, opinion, entertainment, and advertising hurts the "news" brand - and as long as these outlets see their business and focus as "news," they need to be concerned about actions and innovations with potentially negative consequences. These two exemplars from the Washington Post and Columbus Dispatch, for example - while the ad revenues may help financially, their brands as news outlets have suffered, if only from the questions the over-the-board, atypical, efforts raise about the appearance (or possible reality) of influence. At a minimum, the apparent lack of even minimal concern about possibility of outside influence on news content makes one wonder if the outlets remain concerned with, or supportive of, traditional journalistic norms of independence and objectivity.
As I've said in previous posts, Americans' trust of news media is falling - precipitously. And if news media and outlets want to retain the traditional news brand and imprimatur of journalism, they need to at least stop doing things that damage their credibility with news consumers. Like employing the new "native formats" by integrating political coverage with direct campaign advocacy.
For the record, unlike broadcasters, there is no Federal requirement that newspapers (print or digital) sell advertising space to candidates and their campaigns, or at some minimum cost basis. Still, with some recent interpretations of campaign finance laws, if they don't give the same opportunity to all other candidates, sell advertising to candidates and campaigns at costs below their normal rates, or charge candidates differently, some or all of the differences can be interpreted as campaign contributions to the favored candidate. That will create problems for the online news site.
Source - Obama Twitter feed takes over WaPo's website, Washington Examiner