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31 Jan 2014

A Note From the Editor: The Ethics (and Lack Thereof) of Advertising

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I recently received an email from a person who works at a local advertising agency, requesting coverage of an event.

“Or all features given to advertisers?” the email said. “If so I understand.”

Sigh.

I sent a polite reply, explaining that advertising has nothing to do with our editorial coverage. (And, yes, we did cover the event, even though we didn’t receive any advertising—simply because it was an event worthy of coverage.)

Sadly, emails like this to Independent World Headquarters are fairly common. These days—and in this valley, in particular—it’s fairly common for “legitimate” publications to sell editorial coverage along with advertising. This is an ethically questionable practice to begin with—and it’s downright wrong for publications to sell coverage without labeling that coverage as advertising. Yet it happens all the time.

Every journalism school in the country teaches classes warning against “pay for play” practices—and it turns out that many in the advertising industry warn against it, too.

The American Advertising Federation (of which the Independent, as well as almost every local advertising agency, is a member) is part of an Institute for Advertising Ethics, in partnership with the Reynolds Journalism Institute of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. In 2011, that Institute for Advertising Ethics released a list of eight advertising “principles and practices.”

The introduction to the list, in part, reads: “The eight Principles and Practices presented here are the foundation on which the Institute for Advertising Ethics (IAE) was created. They are based on the premise that all forms of communications, including advertising, should always do what is right for consumers, which in turn is right for business as well. For while we are in an age of unparalleled change, this overriding truth never changes.” (Emphasis is theirs.)

As for Principle No. 3, it reads: “Advertisers should clearly distinguish advertising, public relations and corporate communications from news and editorial content and entertainment, both online and offline.”

That’s why we here at the Coachella Valley Independent never, ever promise editorial coverage as part of an advertising deal, nor will we ever write/publish something just to make an existing advertiser happy. As it says in our mission statement: “We believe in true, honest journalism: We want to afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted. We want to be a mirror for the entire Coachella Valley. We want to inform, enlighten and entertain. We will never let advertisers determine what we cover, and how we cover things. In other words, we will always tell it how we see it.”

Allene Arthur, the locally legendary columnist for The Desert Sun who recently turned 90, is the subject of a lovely feature we recently published. She summed up this issue best: “I write for the reader—not the advertiser or the people being written about, but the reader!”

Amen, Allene.

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