Journalistic Ethics in the Age of Advertorials

The photography industry continues to change, with many journalistic publications increasing their use of “native advertising” and advertorials to make ends meet. The lines between the two are increasingly blurry, often making the “truth” difficult to discern.

One such example was recently noticed by Brett Gundlock. The following is a condensed version of the email thread discussion that followed between our members.  

Brett Gundlock: David Desjardins was a freelancer for various media outlets in Quebec. He recently started his own company, basically making advertorial content for companies directly. He was working both as a freelance journalist and a writer for these private companies at the same time.

When he was profiled in La Presse, all of his clients dropped him, including the CBC.

I would say the majority of us work as “journalists” in some sense of the word. But I also think we all also work for “corporate” clients in one way or another. A few of us are actually creating an agency right now based on this exact model. 

Here’s a translated portion of the article:

“For its part, Guillaume Bourgault-Côté, journalist and president of the Union of the newspaper Le Devoir, believes that the situation in which David Desjardins has placed himself is unacceptable.

‘You can not be a journalist on Monday and in the advertising industry the next day. […] In my view, the situation as we know it is not acceptable because there is a blur. There are things that are hidden and not said, that is clear to me,’ he responded.”

I am calling bullshit. But what do you all think? Do we have anything to worry with this type of conflict and our practices?

Aaron Vincent Elkaim: The fact that he was creating advertorial content makes him different than just producing commercial work. His commercial work was slated for the news, the same places he was freelancing for. So I do see somewhat of a conflict.

At the same time, aren’t there newspapers trying to get their journalists to sign a contract that made them produce advertorial work for the same paper? And all these publications create advertorials, so aren’t they in the same degree of conflict as this guy?

It’s hypocritical, really. I think the ethics are only bent when the ad client also happens to be someone you’re doing a story on. Then it’s a no-go. Otherwise, I don’t see a problem. Except with newspapers publishing advertorials in the first place, which I hate.

BG: I don’t think we can talk about journalism/corporate/private/advertising work without remembering this massive FUBAR.

Aside from analyzing, is anyone worried about this type of conflict personally?

AVE: I think we always have to be aware of this type of conflict. But it’s not something that has ever come up for me as of yet.

Rafal Gerszak: Yes, I shot ads for one newspaper the same day I shot hard news for them, but I haven’t got a call from the ad people in a long time.

I have been dismissed by an unnamed publication because of my stand against pipelines and protection of the environment. The same publication works closely with the industry in terms of ad work. The same publication called me and was willing to work with me again literally an hour after Obama announced he is against Keystone.

Laurence Butet-Roch: It’s definitely a tricky story, which shows just how much the media landscape has changed over the years. Perhaps rather than stressing objectivity, we need to push forth principles of transparency and accountability from all actors. This means that all types of journalists should be upfront about their different activities, medias should acknowledge their advertorial practices (after all so many of them try to disguise paid editorial advertising as straight editorial, eg. the so-called native advertising) and readers should be taught from a young age to always interrogate news, to never take is as Truth.

Matt Lutton: The issue of disclosure is important, I think editors can and should know who you are writing for and what your potential conflicts are, but in the emails in this chain it seems that this is a technicality.

Does it matter if the advertorials (or advertising work in general) is uncredited vs what appears under a byline? Is it an issue of perceived conflict of interest (a reader noticing the same name on two types of stories) or the actual conflict of a writer doing journalism on a topic/business that they also are paid to represent ?

I haven’t come across this in my own work, but my general rule is to hold myself accountable to my own ethics, and if it feels weird or dirty to me, then to bring it up with my editors. It doesn’t happen often, but I can surely see that it’ll be more of an issue in the future as the blend of advertising, editorial and commissioned work changes. I’ve seen so many examples of reporting in recent years that is specifically funded by a single advertiser. The Guardian is doing a series of articles on cities that runs with a tagline “this series on cities is generously sponsored by X airline” (no coincidence that all of the articles are in places this airline serves.)

They’re hiring journalists to write / photograph these stories as commissioned, “normal” assignments I assume. But they’re appearing under an advertiser’s banner. That’s troubling to me, or at least a curious happening that I want to pay attention to.

Daniella Zalcman: I second Laurence’s transparency point — to me this is such a non-issue in the larger landscape of potential journalism ethics pitfalls, but as long as we’re upfront with editors I would hope that it wouldn’t affect journalistic commissions. At least for me, a lot of editorial assignments have led to corporate gigs with subjects and their organizations, and over several in NYC, as long as I was honest with my editors about who I was shooting for regularly, they didn’t seem to mind (I don’t think photographing children playing on the High Line for the High Line prevents me from being able to photograph children playing on the High Line for the Wall Street Journal). I have no experience with advertorials (or more charged political situations, for that matter), but as long as lines of communication are clear and open and there’s a reasonable amount of transparency, I see no real problem here.

Mauricio Palos: This is when the morality of journalism enters the conversation. I mean, how many publications around the world are supported by big companies? Multinationals, politicians… take Mexico as an example, the “official advertising” is where each local and federal government pays publications to promote their stuff. Some newspapers get huge contracts on that, and end up being official spokesman of the government…conflict of interest? Millions of pesos every year, but some publications can only survive by that as they will never publish anything to make them look bad.

Johan Hallberg-Campbell: I think as we have all talked about before being honest is all that we can do, that’s number one: honest to ourself, honest to the story we tell, to the people that share their story with us, to our friends and family. Pretty simple ethics, really. I don’t see much to debate over. If you lie, you’re a dick. Especially over our work. Everyone fucks up here and there, hopefully we learn from that.

I have started shooting commercial work recently. Making some videos which are a mix between documentary and advertising jobs. These few jobs have been keeping me in house and home, and providing me with money to shoot the personal work that means a lot to me. If and when the journalist-type jobs start flooding in, I’d be quite happy not to shoot more commercial stuff. I’m 36 and over being a starving artist.

I still shoot my own work and I am hired to shoot assignments. These images are moments I see and record, not sure if I would call that journalism by any means. I edit the images to reflect what I felt, saw and was told, the edits are poems more than anything else. They are as honest an image as I can make, and I can sleep well knowing I have not taken advantage of anyone—including the viewer, I hope. Just happy to do my own thing and not pay attention to what the industry thinks we should be doing.  

Ian: This has certainly been on my mind a lot lately.

I feel like “advertorials” are an ugly symptom of a struggling industry that’s grasping at straws. After cutting budgets and workforce, downsizing the office and selling the presses for scrap, newspapers are even willing to sell their integrity by allowing full-page political advertisements on A1 and advertorials that dupe more vulnerable viewers. I don’t think any legitimate journalist wants this. Many publications, like freelancers, have their backs against the wall these days. We are all trying to figure out a new way to sustain our business.

Freelancers are faced with low pay and imbalanced contracts everyday. Even while we are supposedly seeing some kind of rebound in the editorial industry, stringers continue to function below the poverty line. Of course they’re going to diversify into private and commercial realms in order to sustain themselves. As long as freelance journalists keep transparency and integrity as top priorities, they should be able to navigate those murky waters. Johan has it right: It’s all about being real.

I recently read a great Lens Blog post about staging and manipulation in photojournalism, in which Michelle McNally wrote, “The truth as best we know it.” I rolled those words around in the attic for a few weeks before adopting them as my own mantra. I feel that it’s a noble standard for any journalist and/or artist who deals with some element of reality in their practice. I always come back to those words now when making any decision about my work, be it in the field, post-processing or taking on commissions from commercial clients. 

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