Visit any news site nowadays — Huffington Post, The New York Times, Buzzfeed — and you’ll find a number of articles labeled “sponsored content.” That’s a “loaded term,” writes columnist Russell Wangersky for The Telegram: “Like ‘advertorial,’ it means a story in a newspaper, magazine or on television that is different from ordinary news or current affairs: it’s a piece either written by — or written for and approved by — an advertising customer.” In almost every case, the compositions display a clear bias toward their sponsor, often encouraging consumers to purchase items or services from that company.
Publications continue to face backlash from readers, who note that “sponsored content” is nothing more than a marketing plug disguised as serious journalism. There is no way to separate the truth from the advertising. Many castigate the media for what is perceived as a departure from objectivity and the demise of quality journalism.
Today, we criticize the media for its biased reporting, while failing to acknowledge that American journalism is rooted in subjectivity. Up until the turn of the twentieth century, objective journalism was a foreign concept in the United States. Most media outlets displayed a clear bias defined by political party policies. However, given that most reporters at the time were liberals themselves, their articles were strongly influenced by socially progressive ideals, sparking the ire of conservatives across the nation. In turn, Republican news sources began to emerge as they strove to provide an alternative form of media to balance out the heavily Democratic industry. Today, this bias remains intact in today’s media outlets. For example, the news aggregator, Huffington Post, leaves Editor’s Notes on any article relating to Trump, asserting that he is “a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther.”
The concept of receiving impartial information is a recent development and, in some ways, a privileged one. While we continue to expect nonpartisan accounts, we provide little funding to news sources. Sponsored content allows for media outlets to earn financial revenue, thereby giving them the funding required for other articles.
John Oliver’s segment about journalism talks about the alarming financial state of journalism and the ability of newspapers to pay for investigative pieces. Newspapers instead focus on pieces that get the most traffic, which creates the dangerous possibility that investigative journalism may slowly and continuously decline. This is dangerous, Oliver explains, because investigative journalism keeps the government accountable and many television news channels quote newspapers’ investigative work. This work is a lot more important than anyone recognizes but people are not willing to pay for it. There are a lot of advantages to expanding the online base but there is also a tradeoff in limiting its use.
Should news sources allow sponsored content? Perhaps, the answer to the question is in our practices and behaviors as a consumer. Many of us are aware how to subvert annoying ads through ad-blockers and paid subscriptions through incognito windows. Newspapers, understandably, must rely upon new ways to ensure their financial sustainability. While “sponsored content” is arguably a necessary evil, newspapers can do a better job of distinguishing those articles from journalism, so that fewer readers are misled to believe the article is unbiased. Such measures include drawing more attention to the byline or using different formats for the article. On the other hand, newspapers are often businesses are not necessarily obligated to go out of their way to ensure their content is nonpartisan. Rather, readers should take responsibility into ensuring that what they are reading is accurate. As the Guardian reported in August, Facebook plays a pivotal role in curating the news; however, despite its attempts of securing an unbiased algorithm, fake news runs rampant on the platform. While newspapers should not contribute to poor journalism through misleading articles, readers also need to exercise their agency in what they read and deduce.
It is not wrong, in regards to financing or the nature of journalism, to have sponsored content. However, editors should not seamlessly interweave articles that have a clearly biased tone or sponsorship into the newspaper’s general content. “Sponsored content,” as long as it is not written by journalists or improperly labeled, is a respectable way of financing the modern newspaper.