Student guest post: The hazards of sponsored content

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 11th of those posts. Lindsay Sebastian is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill double majoring in journalism and global studies. She works as an educator at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, and she is an intern at a local nonprofit organization, A Ban Against Neglect.

As journalism students, we’ve been told over and over: Newspapers are closing, circulation is down, and everything can be found online for free. The industry is dying as there is a huge shift away from traditional media consumption.

But this shift is not a shift away from the necessity of news media; it’s a shift in the way news is received. There’s still a demand; it has just taken on a different form.

As forms of media are changing, types of advertising have changed with it. In particular, within the past two years, sponsored content has gained serious momentum among online news organizations.

Newspapers have companies “sponsor” news stories, producing editorial content instead of typical banner ads. While this is great for the news publication’s revenue, the lines between journalism and advertisements are now blurred, sometimes to even dangerous extremes.

One example of this is a post published in January by The Atlantic titled, “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year,” accompanied by a large picture of Miscavige and links to Scientology websites. The article detailed the openings of 12 Scientology churches around the world in the past year, an unprecedented number in the organization’s history. It also mentioned how much the “ecclesiastical leader” Miscavige had done in “leading a renaissance for the religion.” Eleven hours later, the content was removed and in its place, a message read, “We have temporarily suspended this advertising campaign pending a review of our policies that govern sponsor content and subsequent comment threads.”

Though the content was marked as sponsored by the Church of Scientology, journalists criticized The Atlantic for a variety of reasons.

The first reason surrounded the nature of the content itself. The Church of Scientology has a history of abuse, financial fraud and even human trafficking. It is known for intimidating its critics and avoiding the press at all costs. The bizarre and blatantly positive Scientology propaganda didn’t jibe well with The Atlantic’s readers.

Beyond the actual nature of the content, critics pointed out the manner in which the post was displayed. The page itself was identical to the format of news stories on The Atlantic, including font size and type, layout and use of pictures. Though the small “sponsored content” tag was present at the top, everything else was nearly identical.

Additionally, reader comments on the post were censored, leaving only the ones that reflected the positive tone of the piece. For such a controversial article, the lack of critical comments made it clear that someone was censoring them. Later, a spokeswoman from The Atlantic said that the marketing team was monitoring comments and issued an apology for the entire article that started with the words, “We screwed up.”

So how can news organizations avoid controversies around their sponsored content? By being transparent and honest, upholding content standards and allowing conversation around the posts.

Most critics found the Scientology post to be misleading. Whether it was intentional or not, The Atlantic made no attempts to clarify the difference between opinion and reporting. Though some may be able to recognize the difference, it is presumptuous to assume all readers will be able to differentiate the two, especially considering the similarity between the sponsored post’s format and regular news coverage format. More transparency and honesty about the nature of the posts will ensure that readers know a brand influenced the content.

Yet, regardless, content should not be compromised in the posts. News organizations should hold brands to the same standards they hold their reporters to in order to create engaging content that reflects the values of the organization itself. This ensures that the reader is still the highest priority above the company sponsoring the editorials.

Finally, there should be discussion within organizations surrounding the ethics of these sponsored posts. Whether or not a new framework is created to handle these sponsored posts is ultimately up to the news company, but standards for review might be helpful to avoid a situation like the one The Atlantic faced.