Advertisements as news are damaging our credibility

My friend and former colleague Charles Apple is blogging today about a disastrous decision by the Los Angeles Times. The newspaper sold a section front and inside pages to an amusement park, and it dressed up an advertisement for a renovated ride to look like news.

Advertisements masquerading as news are not new. Usually, full-page newspaper ads that have news-like headlines about duct mites, the gold market and golf balls are easy to detect. These ads often use typefaces that are different from the actual news stories and headlines. They’re often so ugly that they stand out as what they are: ads for questionable products and services.

This four-page spread in the LAT is harder to decipher as an ad. Yes, there is a red label saying “ADVERTISEMENT,” but that disclaimer is much smaller than the other display type. And the fake page uses the actual section header and folio.

Copy editors, of course, could easily spot this as a fradulent news. For one thing, the fake pages use upstyle headlines, capitalizing every word. The current LAT style for headlines is either downstyle or all-caps.

More telling to copy editors is the choice of words in the fake headline. Any copy editor knows that something can’t be “partially destroyed.” As the AP Stylebook advises, to destroy something is “to do away with something completely.”

Yet, these are subtle clues that could be overlooked by everyday readers. I imagine that many L.A. readers thought this was a real event being reported, edited and presented by a reputable newspaper. It doesn’t help that an actual fire hit this amusement park in 2008, a story that was covered extensively by the LAT in print and online.

This is a sad moment for the Los Angeles Times, a paper I’ve worked for and still respect. I understand the difficult decisions that newspapers must make to make money. Yet, if the LAT and other newspapers continue to do this sort of thing, they risk not only damaging their integrity, but destroying it.

UPDATE: The newspaper’s readers representative, Deirdre Edgar, says many readers complained. Said one: “Trying to make an ad, especially one that discusses devastation, look like real news is horrible.”