Q: "By Refusing Advertising Dollars from a Political Candidate, Are Media Companies Able to Report Objectively?"

By McCarthy, Erlyn; Hubartt, Kerry | Editor & Publisher, September 2016 | Go to article overview

Q: "By Refusing Advertising Dollars from a Political Candidate, Are Media Companies Able to Report Objectively?"


McCarthy, Erlyn, Hubartt, Kerry, Editor & Publisher


A: With the vitriol that has invaded the political discourse--particularly in this Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump presidential race--reporters and their organizations have come to question what for years has been viewed as journalistic dogma.

Take, for example, a lesson ingrained in anyone who has taken a journalism ethics class: Advertising sides and editorial sides of news organizations should be kept separate.

Sounds simple enough. Advertising dollars should never influence content produced because it could lead to biased coverage.

But in the 2016 journalism world, it is not quite so easy to apply such a principle. This after all is the age where native advertisements disguise themselves as articles and only discerning readers see the difference.

This year, BuzzFeed's advertising folks refused to run Trump ads, comparing them to cigarette ads of the past.

On the surface, the decision itself is morally okay as long as no one in the newsroom influenced it, and as long as the decision serves the audience, not the organization itself.

Yes, a news organization can report objectively while refusing advertising from a political candidate. But before an advertising department makes that call--on its own without input from news side--it should remember that the average reader may have a difficult time viewing even the company's most balanced work as objective from then on.

Outside of the industry, most people don't know how media organizations work. Much to the chagrin of reporters, few read bylines.

But while readers may not know whom they're reading, they know what outlet they are reading. They will associate accordingly.

After that advertising decision is made, readers' perceptions of the company1s objectivity will be tainted before they read the first word of an article.

While professional reporters still will be able to do their jobs, the organization's reputation will take a hit.

Even if a company does maintain complete separation between the business and news sides in making the decision, many readers won't know the difference between the two.

With that in mind, organizations should tread carefully. The reader should be served first and foremost, particularly in such an important and contentious election year.

Erin McCarthy, 21 senior, Pennsylvania State University (State College, Pa.)

McCarthy is a print and digital journalism major and apolitical science minor. She has interned at The Philadelphia Inquirer for three years, most recently covering summer sports and Penn State football. …

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