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Web site’s refusal to accept Sony ads draws ethics commendation from SPJ

SPJ News Release / Wednesday, July 24, 2002

Al Cross, SPJ President, 502/648-8433 or across@mis.net
Gary Hill, SPJ Ethics Chairman, 651/642-4437 or ghill@kstp.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Society of Professional Journalists commends The New York Times Web site for refusing to accept Sony Electronics Web advertisements designed to look like news content.

According to AdAge.com, the Sony ads were written by free-lancers and read like news features, with sidebars to Sony’s Web site. The editorial-like format makes it difficult to determine whether the information is an advertisement or news.

“The New York Times Web site is to be commended for rejecting the Sony ads,” said SPJ Ethics Chairman Gary Hill, director of investigations & special segments at KSTP-TV in Minneapolis. “As online publishing continues to grow and evolve, professional journalists need their institutions to maintain bright clear lines between advertising and editorial content.”

According to the Ad Age story, Sony freely admits it is trying to do the opposite: “We’re trying to blur the line between the advertising and editorial boundary,” said David Cohen, senior vice president and interactive media director on Sony at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Universal McCann.

Such blurring crosses ethical lines. The SPJ Code of Ethics calls for distinguishing between advocacy, advertising and news, and making certain that news content does not misrepresent.

“The reason Sony would want to do this is obvious,” said Hill. “If readers are unable to distinguish the origin of the content they give it the credibility they would normally reserve for the news organization. It would allow Sony to cheaply capitalize on the credibility of The New York Times and other news organizations that accept their money.”

In the short run, accepting these ads without clear labeling will compromise the independence of news organizations who do so. In the long run it will cost them their credibility -- the single most valuable commodity any newsroom possesses.

SPJ President Al Cross noted that the SPJ Code of Ethics instructs journalists to distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.

“The Times’ decision sets an important standard at a time of increasing experimentation and commercial pressures,” said Cross, political writer and columnist at The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. “But the Times is apparently able to look over the horizon and see that making the ethical choice also serves its long term business interests.”

SPJ’s Code of Ethics is voluntarily embraced by thousands of writers, editors and other news professionals. The present version of the code was adopted by the 1996 SPJ National Convention, after months of study and debate among the Society's members. SPJ’s first Code of Ethics was adopted in 1926.

The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. SPJ is dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, and based in Indianapolis, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.

For SPJ information, contact Julie Grimes, SPJ deputy director, at jgrimes@spj.org or 317/927-8000 ext. 216.

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