With increasing frequency, I have noticed advertisements appearing on a variety of media outlets which look a lot like real news reports.
As a freelance writer, blogger and heavy media consumer, I consider myself pretty savvy in deciphering real news from what's not, but lately, it hasn’t been the case.
There have been times when the lines have been so blurred, I wasn't sure which was which. This should not happen. Ever.
Exhibit A: Over the last few months, the local morning television show “Good Day Chicago,” on Fox-owned WFLD-Channel 32, has aired several segments called “Conversations in Health.”
Each segment featured Scott Schneider, or another one of the show's anchors, interviewing a doctor from NorthShore University HealthSystem about health-related topics, including oncoplastic breast cancer surgery, interventional cardiology and treatments for inflammatory bowel disease.
Were these interviews part of the regular show or was it something else?
“The segments are designed to be promotional AND informative,” said Schneider in a Facebook private message. Over the phone, a person in the stations’s sales department told me the relationship is a “partnership.”
Here’s the thing: I don't think there is anything wrong with Fox 32 and NorthShore having a mutually beneficial arrangement, but, as a viewer, I SHOULD KNOW IT.
But Fox 32 is hardly the only culprit. For many weeks, just before the “CBS Sunday Morning” show comes on the air, a video has appeared which I now know is a brazen faux news report.
The video features graphics that say “Sunday Morning Report” and “Planning Your Retirement, ” a “reporter” with the title “Financial Correspondent," and a person of seemingly importance who's being interviewed—all suggesting the video is a part of a real morning news show.
The first time I saw the commercial, I was a full 20 seconds in before I realized it was an ad for a financial adviser. Was it strategically placed between the local newscast and “CBS Sunday Morning” to confuse (dare I say fool?) the audience? I’d bet on it.
Speaking of finances, on WGN Radio, there have been times when David Hochberg, vice president of lending at PERL Mortgage, has been presented as an expert about mortgages as if he's just a normal guest on the shows of various WGN personalities.
I have nothing against Mr. Hochberg. He seems highly knowledgeable about mortgages. But Hochberg is a paid advertiser and that fact has not always been made crystal clear.
Sadly, (at least to me), ChicagoNow (owned by Tronc, the same company which owns the Chicago Tribune), the blogging platform on which my blog, Opinionated Woman appears, is now offering advertisers the option to buy ads which look exactly like the real blog posts—with the same layout and fonts—as the ones my fellow bloggers and I write.
In all fairness, the word "sponsored" appears in several places (and "sponsored" is a different color than the real, unsponsored blog posts), and there is a disclaimer at the bottom of the posts. But what does “sponsored” mean exactly?
Television shows often say “sponsored by” before and during a program, but you don't expect the whole show to be a glowing report about the advertiser (unless they're infomercials and some of them are problematic for me too).
The ChicagoNow manager, a decent and capable leader, said these blog post/ads “follow industry standards.”
But why not just spell it out? If the point is not to mislead or deceive, why not label a blog post/ad as what is it—a paid advertisement?
The Chicago Tribune does it. For example, a tabloid-sized section called “Senior Housing Guide” appeared in my newspaper a few weeks ago. It was labeled “SPECIAL ADVERTISING SECTION” at the top of its front page as well it should be.
And Facebook? Don’t even get me started (Russian bots, anyone?).
Just so you know, I have nothing against ads. I once made my living writing them. Sure, racking up sales for products or services was the goal but so was doing it creatively.
As mad men and women, our aim was to produce work that was thoughtful or amusing or both. I would rather have walked down Michigan Avenue naked in winter than to present a ho-hum idea to a client such as mimicking real TV news.
I get that print news outlets are having a really, really hard time and are constantly on the lookout for ways to raise revenue--just to survive. I get that a slew of media outlets are vying for advertising dollars.
But what is the price of integrity? Blurring the lines between news and advertising not only cheapens journalism, it can result in what really is, well, fake news.
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