We live in an interesting world these days with respect to information dissemination. More than ever breaking news is available at our fingertips, whether streamed live into our phones, computers, tablets or televisions. Nearly everyone has a camera at the ready in case they need to document some random happening in their own lives or capture (what used to be unseen) moments in other people's lives. While access to information is largely positive, with respect to important global events and accelerated communication when necessary, we have created a strange new environment of information overload. Suddenly any comment can be presented as legitimate information. As a result, we have forgotten the importance of utilizing only credible sources.
There is a new phenomenon where reporters essentially regurgitate the words of their viewers in the hopes of pandering to them in order to increase ratings. Instead of providing substantial information backed by research, news anchors and pundits spin emotional tales devoid of facts because they believe they are reflective of their viewers current opinions. The idea being that instead of informing the public, "news" programs simply tell people what they want to hear, thus increasing viewership.
How nuts is it that ratings drives content in the reporting of national and international news?!
The problem is that that news is a business. Ratings matter because journalists, and all of the people whose jobs are involved with researching what is happening in the world and then informing us about it, need to be paid for their time and effort, and increasingly, we (the public) don't want to do that anymore. If we aren't going to pay for our news in the classical sense of purchasing the medium news comes in (i.e. newspapers), then advertisers are going to become news outlets' main source of income.
The truth is that as print media loses out to the internet, news organizations have moved online. Most major newspapers have web versions of their papers with the same content. The difference is that because we are used to websites being viewable for free (outside of paying for internet access), readers don't like the idea of paying to view newspaper articles online.
As a result, our "news" must debase itself into being nothing more than fodder for viewers in order to serve as filler for advertisements. Even worse, sometimes the "news" itself has become actual advertisements.
Think HBO's business model versus that of basic cable. HBO doesn't have commercials because its viewers pay directly for access to its content. On basic cable, however, networks make money by selling advertisements. They utilize popular content to draw viewers in to each time slot.
Print news used to operate on a more HBO-like model where the public simply paid for the papers themselves. The papers contained some advertisements, but ads were easily identified as being paid advertisements unaffiliated with content.
As the trend has moved more and more towards ad-generated revenue, media are experimenting with new ways of injecting advertisements into their products. Instead of simply cramming in more obvious ads, advertisements are becoming integrated directly into content.
It's called Native Advertising.
Native Advertising is when actual posts, segments and articles are directly sponsored by a company.
These ads are made to look like independent reporting, but are paid for by outside companies.
It's the difference between an independent tester evaluating toothpastes and declaring a winner and Colgate sponsoring an article that (surprise!) names Colgate toothpaste as the best.
While these sponsored posts, segments and articles will technically be labeled as sponsored content, they are purposefully designed to appear as regular content. There is a range of native advertising to be sure, with some being relatively innocuous. Unfortunately, there is the darker side where sponsored opinion posts work incredibly hard to appear as independent, investigative journalism.
John Oliver did a fantastic segment on Native Advertising, covering many of the topics I have mentioned above. Check it out below.
Given this new reality of sponsored content invading our journalism, how can we fight back? Well, for one, we might want to try being cool with directly paying for quality content.
I know. Clearly we have a problem with this or we wouldn't be having this conversation, but come on people! Most of us can afford to pay a few dollars for news. After all, many of us pay for Netflix.
Look into actually paying for a newspaper or online subscription. If cost is a huge concern, be on the lookout for the many deals and sales going on that further slash their prices.
The second thing you can do is teach yourself about Native Advertising and be wary of any content with a mention of a sponsor. Some of it is harmless, but if an article is attempting to make a persuasive argument about an important national or global issue, be sure to make note of any sponsorships. Would the sponsor have a particular stake in the conclusion? While I am sure that an article could be written independently and then receive sponsorship after the fact, the whole notion of sponsorship makes me suspicious of manipulation of facts and tone.
And that brings me to number three. If you agree with me and will never fully trust information sponsorship, then by all means, let your news outlets know this. Tell them that they are compromising their integrity.
It's one thing to slap a name on a thing for mere product placement (hello every sports event ever "Brought to you by ______!") and something entirely different to sponsor content that reflects positively on your company under the guise of independent journalism. I think we need to tell our media where the line is drawn.
Obviously, news outlets are entitled to make money, but we should tell them that we view their content for reliable news. We tolerate their advertisements as a necessary part of the equation as long as their news remains untarnished. Once they lose credibility, we will no longer be buying.
Then take our business elsewhere. (Or take our viewing eyes elsewhere.)
While I would argue that many news outlets have long since lost their credibility, many more may be compromised due to this trend. If we find our current resource is becoming inundated with troublesome native advertising, we should switch to sources that aren't.