Ethics Debate: Information Age Journalism

The internet has allowed nearly every person and every company to be a source of information, often times free of charge.  This breakdown of the traditional journalism business model of advertising and subscription dollars has forced many media outlets to look for new ways of generating revenue.  With this ability to bypass the traditional gatekeepers of media and journalism, it is a buyer beware market for information out there.  Readers must be aware of the source of the information they are consuming, and do their due diligence to verify what they are being told.  The rise of brand journalism, or corporate media as some now call it, has raised some ethical questions about the way information is published.

Forbes is one publication that has welcomed the rise of brand journalism with a new section designed specifically for corporate created content.  In doing so, Forbes has tried their utmost to draw a clear and distinct line between what they consider traditional journalism having its own section, versus what they consider brand journalism having its own section.  As Forbes itself explains it, “the critical requirement is transparency, which means proper identification and labeling.”   With the originally titled AdVoice, now rebranded as BrandVoice, Forbes has given companies a separate platform to pay for the privilege of speaking directly to their readers.   Forbes has used BrandVoice in conjunction with traditional ads to evolve their business model in an effort to generate more revenue.   Forbes executive Mark Howard, notes, “BrandVoice partners who also buy traditional advertising across our site now account for 10% of our revenues.”

Others have taken a more cautious or contrarian approach.  Journalist Tom Foremski ponders the possibility that, for example, a fashion designer such as Hugo Boss would ever publish a piece on the effects and consequences of child labor in the fashion industry.  Preferring accuracy in terminology Foremski laments the idea that something he considers a clear public relations piece published by a company about its own products could be re-branded as anything but PR.  Kelly Toughill, a professor of journalism in Canada, points out that independence for journalists covering a topic has always been a hallmark of ensuring that the public good is always the number one goal of journalism.  She goes on to clarify her concerns and distinctions between traditional journalism and brand journalism, “journalism explicitly promises to serve the interests of its audiences and its community first. But in brand journalism, that is not the case.”

For some, it comes down to the manner in which the company engaging in brand journalism handles its employees.  From this perspective, it is acceptable if the brand journalists are allowed to operate free of interference from their bosses and report on the stories they see fit, in the way they see fit.   Cisco has its own publication called The Network that it puts out on technology industry trends.  Cisco hired traditional journalist Scott Gurvey for The Network.   Scott Gurvey had previously worked for CBS and PBS among other traditional journalism outlets.    Cisco has taken a hands off approach to Gurvey’s work, even allowing him to publish an article that deals with subject matter which is the opposite of Cisco’s core business model.  Of these ethical concerns Gurvey says, “The issue for me was how was this going to be operated, and nothing the Cisco people ask me to do compromises the reporting of the stories I’ve done, so I have no problem with this.”

Many people in this debate point out that traditional journalism itself has always relied on advertising to pay for their journalism.  In a way, journalists have always been brand journalists and the advertising in their publication is also a reflection on them.  As well, in today’s era of vertically and horizontally integrated multinational media conglomerates, the corporate overlords are invariably tied to other interests.  CBS had famously tried to kill a story on the negative effects of cigarettes that was to run on its show 60 Minutes due to the corporate relations to a tobacco company.  This was part of the whistle-blower episode that turned into the movie The Insider starring Hollywood legends Al Paccino and Russell Crowe.  While this movie covers the internal power struggles within both the tobacco company and CBS itself, the rise of so many alternative media outlets, not to mention social media, means there is no shortage of ways that any side of a subject can tell their story.  McDonald’s tried its hand at brand journalism to portray positive stories of farmers from whom it buys much of its ingredients.  McDonald’s even paid to have some tweets from the campaign promoted on Twitter.  This sparked a public backlash from the Twitter-verse offering up unsolicited public outcry from a variety of viewpoints from the animal cruelty perspective to just how bad the diarrhea is from eating McDonalds.  “Even though the company used the hashtag only twice, a legion of critics pounced on #McDStories to tell their own tales of weed or animal cruelty.”   Apparently that hashtag continues to bounce around the Twitter-verse as a source of mockery and is taught in marketing programs as to how quickly a poorly conceived campaign of brand journalism can go bad.   As McDonald’s found out social media, at times, can be the great equalizer where all the corporate money in the world cannot buy positive feedback from citizen journalists that have had bad experiences with some facet of their business.

The simultaneous rise of citizen journalists and the new era of brand journalism has created a three sided tug of war over information and stories between them and traditional journalism.  Many citizens like to hear information directly from a corporation about how their products can benefit them in their day to day lives, and then do further research to verify that information through other means.  Some publications are making a clear distinction between their traditional journalism content and their branded journalism so their readers can be aware of the source.  The awareness of the ethical concerns about branded journalism being mistaken for traditional journalism reflect the many voices making themselves heard from all sides in this debate.   The information age has thus become both buyer and seller beware.  The buyer must know what the source of information is, and the seller must be aware of the public opinion climate in which they wish to put out their brand information.

References

Basen, I. August, 2012. Is that an ad or a news story – and does it matter which?  The Globe and Mail
Retrieved from: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/is-that-an-ad-or-a-news-story-and-does-it-matter-which/article4461877/

Bull, A. In deference of brand journalism. Retrieved from:
http://www.brand-journalism.co.uk/introduction-to-the-subject/in-defence-of-brand-journalism/

Devorkin, L. October, 2012. Inside Forbes: The birth of brand journalism and why it’s good for the news business. Forbes. Retrieved from:
http://www.forbes.com/sites/lewisdvorkin/2012/10/03/inside-forbes-the-birth-of-brand-journalism-and-why-its-good-for-the-new-business/#2895437e2107

Gombita, J. July, 2013. Goodbye brand journalism and content marketing…hello DIY corporate media!. PR Conversations. Retrieved from: http://www.prconversations.com/2013/07/goodbye-brand-journalism-and-content-marketing-hello-diy-corporate-media/

 

 

 

 

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