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Saturday, July 11, 2009
Ethics Toolbox

Eschewing fakery

By Andy Schotz

The photo ran on the front page, above the fold. Several government officials were lined up; one smiled and held oversized scissors, about to cut a ribbon.

President Barack Obama, also grinning, was tucked into the group.

One of my co-workers saw the front page and the picture in a vending box, briefly frozen by our competitor’s prominent scoop. How did we miss the president’s visit to our coverage area? We didn’t. The picture was fake.

It was an April Fool’s Day photo, an annual ruse at this other newspaper. If readers noticed a small explanation on Page 2, they could share the punch line.

I won’t pillory our industry over one juvenile tradition. But I’ve been noticing plenty of trickery disguised as news.

This year, the Los Angeles Times, on separate occasions, ran a front-page ad couched as a news story and a four-page advertising section masquerading as editorial copy.

The front-page ad, written as if it were news, promoted a new police-themed NBC series called “Southland.” The word “advertisement” was at the top of the boxed-in ad, along with an NBC peacock logo.

So, even as the Times teased readers, it gave them hints about the joke, in a way.

Cheers to the many Times staffers who protested the ad. The executive editor apparently was ticked off about it, too.

Another news-ad hybrid trend is more prevalent

and flagrant.

You might have seen half or full-page ads for offbeat products such as a “newly-released weight loss discovery” or a “public handover of rare full sheets of money.” One says, “Pharmacists brace for rush to get ‘Human Joint Oil.’”

And: “World famous Amish built fireplace mantles now being given away free.” That one caught the attention of skeptics because of the subtle implication that Amish craftsmen were helping to create electric heaters.

The products may or may not be scams, but I’m more interested in the pitches. The ads are laid out as news stories. They have headlines and subheads, pictures and charts.

Worst of all, they have bylines, as if written by journalists. These “writers” are identified as belonging to newsy-sounding organizations, such as Universal Media Syndicate and Media Services.

Far less prominent, if it’s there at all, is the most important word on the page: advertisement.

Some samples I’ve collected have “advertisement” in ridiculously small type, or in shaded boxes, or tucked in a bottom corner of the page.

What’s also missing is any concern for the reader, whom we should be serving.

Advertisers of miracle products are cloaking their marketing campaigns in the legitimacy of news coverage. We let them; we’re complicit.

The SPJ Code of Ethics encourages journalists to: “Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.”

I don’t envy the decisions newspaper executives have to make in these tough economic times. Revenue is elusive and cuts are always around the corner.

If we’re not willing to turn down ads disguised as news stories, we must at least counteract their deception. Consider these quick tips for helping readers easily distinguish between editorial content and ads:

1) Use different fonts than the ones you’d use for headlines or copy. Separate the ads in boxes. Make sure “advertisement” is conspicuous one or two or more times.

2) Get rid of the advertisement bylines. The Washington Post did that when running ads trumpeting “7 smart places to stash your cash” and “Free armored safes being doled out to public.”

3) Refuse to run ads that deceive the public into thinking they might be news stories. Integrity is the best way to keep readers and their trust.

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