The lessons of the Atlantic's Scientology 'sponsor content' blunder

/// The lessons of the Atlantic’s Scientology ‘sponsor content’ blunder

January 17, 2013  |  Blog

If you search for “Scientology” on Google, the top result on the search page is an advertisement for, guess what, Scientology.

Actually, two advertisements: one linking to the organization’s website and the other to a YouTube video purporting to offer “the truth” about it. Both are set off from the search engine’s algorithmic results by a shaded background and a notice, which reads, “Ads related to scientology” – a reasonably straightforward indication that the top position on the page, like many others that turn up in Google searches, has been purchased. I haven’t heard anyone complain about this, though I wish Google would make it even more obvious that these things are ads.

Yet, on Monday, when the Atlantic magazine’s website posted a page (pdf) by Scientologists – under what was labelled “Sponsor Content” – my Twitter and Google+ feeds went moderately berserk. The post, what journalism people call an “advertorial”, or an advertisement semi-masquerading as editorial content, was an unintentionally hilarious paean to Scientology, featuring a look at lots of new facilities opened in the past year. The comments that stayed on the page were uniformly gung-ho, and also smirk-inducing.

There is a difference, and a serious one, between the way Google and the Atlantic handle their relationships with Scientology, which has famously devoted followers and implacable critics. But even as we agree that the Atlantic screwed up, we should give some thought to what we mean in this emerging digital culture when we talk about something we call a fundamental tenet of the craft of journalism: independence.

Every day, it seems, we see traditional boundaries – which were always less rigid or tall than journalists pretended – being breached by the old guard, who’ve been panicked by the revenue implosion of the past decade. Many of the new players, especially in the social part of the media ecosystem, have jettisoned the traditional tactics almost entirely.

The Atlantic took down the ad amid an uproar that included condemnation, incredulity and, this being the internet, hilarity. In the latter category, the Onion ran a piece praising the Taliban’s latest achievements, but the best parody came from BoingBoing’s Rob Beschizza, who slapped up a parody that is already its own internet meme. And in the end, the Atlantic apologized forthrightly, saying:

“We screwed up. It shouldn’t have taken a wave of constructive criticism – but it has – to alert us that we’ve made a mistake, possibly several mistakes. We now realize that as we explored new forms of digital advertising, we failed to update the policies that must govern the decisions we make along the way.”

What made the publication of Scientology’s advertorial especially problematic, of course, was the way it appeared. “Sponsor Content” is the kind of mushy expression that media companies use when they’re running ads they don’t want to admit are ads. And there was little differentiation in the look and feel of the piece from what normally runs on the site’s pages – apart from its essential absurdity, compared to the magazine’s typical editorials, as if some Atlantic writer had decided to create a parody. The visceral response from critics stemmed from an impression that the Atlantic was renting its news pages to anyone who could come up with the cash, and in a way not designed to be clear about distinctions of content.

But what do news organizations and other media businesses do, if not offer their pages (or broadcast programs, etc) to various bidders? We all know what an ad looks like in a newspaper or on TV: a separate element distinguishable from the editorial content, or supposedly so. It’s not always so easy. We’re learning that if we see a consumer product in a movie or TV show, it’s overwhelmingly likely that money or favors changed hands to get it in front of us. This is why Google would be wise to make it even clearer what’s advertising and what’s coming from the algorithms.

How independent is a newspaper editor whose publisher sits on the local Chamber of Commerce board, as so many do around America? Codes of ethics for writers and editors never, ever apply to the most senior executives of media companies. And when is the last time anyone saw a hard-hitting investigation into a major print or broadcast advertiser by the news group taking its money? Do you think it’s a coincidence that, a year ago, the major television news programs all but ignored the free speech implications of internet censorship legislation – a bill that almost passed – when their parent companies were universally in favor of the law?

One of journalism’s biggest ongoing scandals is what doesn’t get covered. Too many people don’t need to be warned off; they censor themselves.

Small online outlets, meanwhile, are rife with conflicts and interests. And in a world where consumers become creators, social media turns influence into a marketplace. We’re still figuring it all out.

Brazen interference may be rare in the big media world, but it’s still with us. A few days ago, CBS told its CNET tech journalism unit it could not give an award to a product, a Dish Network hard disk recorder that automatically skips past commercials. CBS hates the device, and is trying, along with other TV members of the Copyright Cartel, to sue it out of existence.

The editorial staffers at CNET are appalled and angry, and one of their number, Greg Sandoval, quit in protest. CBS hasn’t been an exemplar of excellence in a long time, but this definitely won’t boost its credibility.

I’m glad the Atlantic’s mea culpa contained this – “We remain committed to and enthusiastic about innovation in digital advertising” – because we need as much innovation in news business models as in journalism itself (and we’re getting a lot of the latter these days). The financial turmoil in the news industry gives all providers an incentive to be creative in attracting revenues, but we’ve seen too little. Meanwhile, conflicts of interest online are routine, but we don’t always know about them. (I have a list of mine on my personal blog, and disclose them in my writing when it’s relevant to the piece.)

Given the uncertainty and experimentation, disclosure is a vital component of the one thing news providers can’t buy: trust. And one key way to earn it is to admit when you’re wrong, as the Atlantic did and CBS needs to do.

Again and again, it seems, we have to learn an old truism. Trust is more easily squandered than earned.

Link:  The lessons of the Atlantic’s Scientology ‘sponsor content’ blunder

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