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Knowing what is what:
Is it editorial content or is it advertising?


by John Bowen
Can you tell ads from news?

Based on an article in Marketplace Tech published Dec. 3, it might not be that easy on digital media.

The advertising in question, referred to as “native ads” by author Stacey Vanek Smith, are ads that do not look like ads.

Because of this, Smith reports the Federal trade Commission will look into their use.

The reason: fear people cannot tell the difference and might be misled, misinformed or just plain, as one source said, “hoodwinked.”

[pullquote]Fear that people cannot tell the difference and might be misled, misinformed or just plain, as one source said, “hoodwinked.”[/pullquote]

Interesting educational and ethical questions develop as more scholastic media redefines itself as digital media.

Issues we must address, of course, include knowing how to tell what are examples of “objective” reporting and what are “native ads.”

And, that might be just the beginning. Other terms gaining traction in our online future have already begun to circulate:
Brand journalism: Information paid for by companies, or brands, that look and feel like news but further the financial interests of a company
Non-profit journalism: The idea that consumers will fund particular depth or investigative reporting. For example, a private group might seek funding so it could investigate fracking. The task will be to differentiate this from Brand journalism.
Native ads: Information blended with editorial content so well that audiences cannot tell the difference
Citizen journalism: The idea that anyone can be a journalist, gathering and presenting information, from brand journalism to native ads.

Being repelled by this or questioning the methods professionalism of presenting information may be a moot point. The words and ideas are already beyond legacy journalism’s traditional gatekeepers as we see in the mentioned article.

So we have more challenges as we prepare our students, and hence our communities, for a changing media world.

What do we call our new tool set? News literacy? Media management? Crap detection?

Questions we might ask:

• A movement exists to revise some of journalism’s most revered codes of ethics.  What changes, if any are needed? Why? Because of content like the above,  how fast must we adapt, or don’t these questions raise ethical issues?
• How do the above journalistic concepts affect our understanding of verification, credibility, truth, objectivity and substantive reporting? For journalists? For our citizen audiences?
• Even if we can identify the practices, what do we do about them? What is our role as journalists? As citizens?
• What new criteria must we develop to help ourselves and our audiences be more intelligent consumers?
• Repeat the question above, but instead of consumers insert the phrase involved, engaged civic leaders. Then insert voters.

Answers to these questions might well separate what we know from what we think we know in the not-so distant future.

And this is likely just an opener for what we will have to help our students know and practice.

To see how well you can identify a native ad from news, take the quiz connected to the native ads article.

Let us know how well you did.

More importantly, let us know how you are going to use this information.

NPR also weighed in on the topic recently.

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