It's Time to Free Internet Journalism from Corporate Ads

Attention class. Here's today's new word: "Native advertising."

Okay, that's two words. But it's one concept, and it has nothing to do with native people. Rather, it's a phrase sprung on us by the wonky wordsmiths of internet media, who also refer to it as "brand content," meaning that these particular web pages are not articles, but paid advertizing. But they don't want to be too explicit about distinguishing between genuine news items and ad hustles.

Why not? Money, of course.

In today's fledgling web publications – from such newbies as BuzzFeed to the digital versions of old-line pubs like the New York Times – there's been a blurring of the line between the publications' legitimate journalistic content and the faux "stories" that are provided by marketers and designed to look like real articles from non-biased news sources. For readers and viewers, the questions are obvious: Whose stuff is this, and what can I trust?

The best ethical response by online publishers would be to draw a bright line around all "branded content," perhaps with some flashing neon lights and honking horns to announce: "This is an ad." But no. While internet publishers say they seek journalistic integrity, they're hungrier still for advertisers' dollars, so their game is to flash just enough integrity without losing the bucks.

That's a losing game for integrity. Media analyst Bob Garfield notes that the very effectiveness of native advertising depends on it being confused with editorial content. Eliminate the confusion, and the ethical failure diminishes, he says, but "what will also diminish to near vanishing point is the readership of those adverts."

Any media so dependent on corporate money that it resorts to deceiving its audience is – in a word – "dependent." Also, "untrustworthy." We need public funding to free the independence of journalism on the web.

Listen to this commentary:

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Photo: "Big businessman crushing a small one," via Shutterstock.