Is it News or Is it Advertising?


The weekly “Saturday Homes” section of the Contra Costa Times is laid out to look like news.

The Times runs its logo on top above a banner that reads: “Your Best Guide In the East Bay.” It’s not an insert, but a regular lettered section of the newspaper. Like news pages, it’s presented with headlines and columns of text separated from advertisements. There are datelines on each story telling where it was reported as well as bylines indicating the author.

The “stories” follow journalistic form. A recognizable lead paragraph, short sentences in active voice, brief paragraphs, and quotes from sources. But far from journalistic objectivity and skepticism, the content is effusive, fawning over one development or another.

"Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two."

--The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics

But although nowhere in the section do editors specifically identify it as an advertising section prepared by developers rather than journalists, “Saturday Homes” is 100 percent advertising.

The primary tip that this is not news comes in the smallest typeface on the page. It's an unfamiliar story byline such as “Wheeler”, “Gold Mountain”, “Standard Pacific”, or “Pulte Home Corporation.”

As you read down the page you may also notice that the typeface differs slightly. But unless you line it up next to a real news section, you will probably miss the distinction.  

“It’s either intentionally or unintentionally deceptive to leave open the question as to whether this is refereed, critically examined news copy or fluffy, biased advertising copy."

- News ethicist Keith Woods of the Poynter Institute.

“Summerset at Brentwood residents enjoy the best of both worlds,” the first story in the Contra Costa Times “Saturday Homes” section on September 9 begins.

 The development represents “the best in active adult living,” a “fun, physically active environment,” “one of the finest examples of a nation-wide lifestyle trend,” featuring “an unparalleled array of activities,” in  “a peaceful but fully engaging lifestyle,” that is “so enticing,” and “worthy of [the] highest expectations.” “…Summerset residents are guaranteed fun, active days.”

And these are just the reporter’s generalizations. The sole source, a Summerset representative, is even more positive.

Advertisers seek credibility of news format

Why an advertiser would want to craft ads that look like news is obvious. “We know the pressure is on [from advertisers] to use the news story form to lend credibility to advertisements,” explains Keith Woods, a former journalist and now a journalism ethicist at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in Florida.

But why a newspaper with the demonstrated quality of the Contra Costa Times (see grades) would gamble its credibility by dressing ads in news clothing is puzzling. For a week we sought comment from Times Publisher George Riggs and Vice President for News John Armstrong. Riggs did not respond and Armstrong said he was too busy to answer by posting time. (See comment from Armstrong below.)

“I think it’s problematic,” says news ethicist Woods. “It’s either intentionally or unintentionally deceptive to leave open the question as to whether this is refereed, critically examined news copy or fluffy, biased advertising copy.

“By failing to make that separation clearly,” he adds, “readers are left to judge these stories using exactly the same measure of judgment that they would for any other story. If the reader stops and says ‘what kind of fluff is this?’ they may reject the credibility of the [entire] newspaper.

“You never want someone saying, ‘Is this real?’”

Readers pay more attention to news format than to bylines or warnings

The stronger possibility is that readers may think it’s news.

Glen T. Cameron, the Gregory Chair in Journalism Research at the Missouri School of Journalism, says most newspaper readers in his studies ignore bylines and even a one-time warning that content laid out as news is really advertising. Most readers are also oblivious to font changes. He has conducted a variety of studies using average readers as research subjects.

"People aren't nearly as aware of bylines as journalists are," Cameron explains. "But they know the trappings of a [news] story." A byline, even if it includes the word "homes" next to the developer's name, "doesn't necessarily trigger awareness of an ad, or what a red flag that should be," he adds. "People won't pick up on that. Even small labels [warning that a section is advertising] don't work well."

Advertisers ask news media to package ads in news format, Cameron says, because research has shown that it increases both long and short-term memory of the content and makes it more believable. "The bottom line is that advertorials do borrow from the editorial credibility of the paper and [advertisers] do benefit from it."

Cameron has a phrase for such content: "information pollution."

Ads laid out like news are common

Advertising sections laid out to look like news are common in all Bay Area newspapers Grade the News monitors--the Times, The San Jose Mercury News and the San Francisco Chronicle (including the Sunday Examiner). But the Mercury and Chronicle/Examiner  are careful to label such simulations as advertising.

The Mercury “Sunday Homes” section, for example, carries a disclaimer across the top of the masthead (the top part of a section front page usually containing the newspaper’s logo and name of the section) stating: “Special Advertising Section.” And above the developer’s byline on every story, the Mercury prints “Promotional Material” in boldface print.

The Chronicle and Examiner occasionally run a section called “New Homes” that is clearly laid out as an advertising section, but contains ads in news format inside. The front page contains the word “advertisement,” and inside there is a second disclaimer: “This special advertising section is sponsored by participating advertisers. It was prepared by the Marketing Department of the S.F. Chronicle and S.F. Examiner, and did not involve the reporting or editing staff of this newspaper.”

The Chronicle’s ethical code requires that: “Advertising will be clearly labeled as such. If there’s any possible confusion with editorial content, advertising content will be clearly labeled as advertising,” according to Linda Strean, assistant managing editor. The Examiner follows similar guidelines, says Metro Editor Dick Rogers. “It's the newspaper's practice that advertising in the guise of news carries a disclaimer at the top of the page.”

Only realty interests get to bend the rules

In fairness, the Times clearly labels ads that look like news in every section of the paper but “Saturday Homes.” Only real estate interests are permitted to blur the distinction between news and ads.

The Times labels its Friday “Auto Plus” as an “advertising supplement” right on the masthead. And the Times follows the same policy of disclosure on its Sunday “Real Estate Plus,” although the latter is more clearly laid out as a display advertisement, and thus less likely to be mistaken for news. Inside its Sunday travel section ads laid out as news stories are also labeled as advertising.

Not the first time

There is some precedent for local news organizations bending their rules for large advertising accounts. In 1994, the Mercury responded to pressure from South Bay automobile dealers who were incensed over a story telling readers how to bargain with dealers.

Publisher Jay T. Harris sent a letter to the dealers apologizing for parts of the story and ran a full-page “house” advertisement announcing a “partnership with the Northern California new car dealers.” Not only did the “partnership” violate the central journalism ethic of independence from special interests, the ad advised readers to patronize auto dealers rather than buy from brokers or others.

By his own admission, Harris also censored letters to the editor critical of the Mercury’s position and invited an editorial from the auto dealers explaining their unique value to the community. In response, the auto dealers dropped an advertising boycott they began shortly after the bargaining article ran. At that time several Mercury journalists commented that stories major advertisers might find objectionable were no longer possible at the paper.

Several local television stations have also blurred the distinction between news and ads. As recently as March, Channel 7 reporter Cheryl Jennings asked people to play the “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” board game on camera and then solicited testimonials about whether they’d buy the game. Anchors Dan Ashley and Jennifer Aguirre then tried to peddle the game for $30 directly from the Channel 7 web site (see story). In addition to turning a news story into a commercial, they failed to disclose that the company selling the game, ABC, owns Channel 7. 

Gambling with credibility

Advertisers are the most important customers of newspapers and television stations. They pay all the expenses in broadcast and about 80% in newspapers. But when media executives allow advertisers to call the shots in the newsroom, even in just one section of the newspaper or in one or two stories in a newscast, they gamble with the very quality that makes the news a great vehicle for advertising--credibility.

Credibility is difficult to earn and easy to lose. Catch someone once in a lie and you suspect them thereafter.

Americans are trusting--and using--news less. The American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) and the the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) recently phoned thousands of citizens and journalists. What they found disturbed them:

Boosting the interests of big advertisers breeds cynicism. If Americans lump bad journalism with the good and turn away, it won’t just damage the corporations that bring us news. It will hurt us all. For better or worse, self-government requires both reliable public information and public trust in it.

            --John McManus

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What do you think?

Contra Costa Times Editor Responds (9/26/00)

While you never come right out and say it, the tenor of this week's posting on the Grade The News Web site strongly suggests that you believe the Contra Costa Times intentionally attempts to deceive its readers.

Your "evidence" is that you managed to find among all the advertising supplements produced by the Times (and there are literally hundreds of them) one supplement, Saturday Homes, that is not labeled as such. You note that the supplement has a different type font and carries the "bylines" of home developers, but you surmise that this could cause confusion on the part of readers, the one conclusion you reach that I would not dispute.

One has to wade through nearly 1,000 words of pontificating by you and others before you can bring yourself to concede "in fairness" that all other Times advertising supplements are appropriately labeled. (But how fair is it for you to suggest that by not labeling Saturday Homes as an advertising supplement, "only real estate interests are permitted to blur the distinction between news and ads"? In the very next paragraph you note that a Sunday real estate advertising supplement is appropriately labeled. Do you mean to suggest that the Times allows real estate interests to "blur the distinction" on Saturdays but not on other days of the week?)

The simple truth is this: The Special Sections/Advertorial Department of the Times, which produces Saturday Homes, failed to attach the appropriate label to the section. Knowing those people as I do, knowing the publisher's ethical principles as I do and recognizing that every other section produced by the department is appropriately labeled, there is no doubt in my mind that the oversight was unintentional.

The Editorial Department of the Times has never been involved in production of Saturday Homes. When I called the labeling oversight to the attention of the Special Section/Advertorial editors, they apologized and immediately remedied the situation.

Prior to your posting, you did ask for comment from me. Your request encompassed five questions, including one dealing with the Society of Professional Journalists code. A thorough and thoughtful response would have required at a minimum a couple of hours of research and reflection on my part, and I simply did not have the time. I had more pressing projects, including the launch last weekend of A&E, our new Sunday arts and entertainment section.

I asked for some time to respond, but you elected to proceed with your erroneous interpretation before hearing from us. At the Times we hold stories to make sure they have appropriate balance. It appears that at Grade the News questions of balance take a back seat to self-imposed deadlines.

You have had kind words for the Times in past editions of Grade the News, but as I have noted in previous correspondence to you, your lapses in fairness diminish the significance we attach to both your praise and your condemnation. On one occasion you accused the Times of racial insensitivity based on your erroneous assumption that a story subject was African-American. You drew that conclusion without seeking our comment, and you declined to correct the error when it was called to your attention.

Perhaps it's time for someone to grade Grade the News.

John Armstrong, Editor Contra Costa Times

Grade the News congratulates the Contra Costa Times on its decision to label future "Saturday Homes" sections as advertising. As for providing adequate time for the Times' response, we did delay a week for Mr. Armstrong's reply.--J.M.