Ad Platform or Real Estate News?
Media critics such as Ben Bagdikian have argued that real estate, automobile and other sections devoted to some type of commodity are more “ad platforms” than news sections. Their task is not to critically inform readers about an industry or the social issues that industry addresses, but to create “a buying mood” for its products.
Let’s subject the Mercury News’ Saturday real estate section to a test.
If the critics are right, one would expect to find, not just the presence of favorable articles about real estate, such as “Fantasy Home,” but the absence of critical ones. That would create the positive “buying” mood.
One might also expect a higher than average ratio of ads to news. Finally, one might expect that the paper would spend little of its own reporting resources, relying instead upon cheaper free-lance articles and those from wire services. The purpose, according to the critics, is not to report on the Bay Area’s critical housing imbalances or problems the industry is facing. Rather, it’s to gather as much ad revenue at the least cost to the Mercury.
To test the criticism, Grade the News analyzed all five Saturday real estate sections during the month of September. Here’s what we found:
Of course it’s possible that real estate is a trouble-free industry, or at least was so in September. However, problems with home construction constitute one of the most common types of complaints received by the Santa Clara County Consumer Protection Office. The Contractors State License Board in Sacramento doesn’t break out complaints by month, but in the fiscal year ending June 30, it received 950 complaints from Santa Clara County alone.
Although the Mercury’s real estate section served advertisers better than readers in September, it did contain valuable consumer information. Most of the real estate columns were informational rather than promotional. Charts and maps showed fluctuations in price and listed real estate transactions in area cities and counties. It was primarily a vehicle for advertising, but not exclusively so.