Journalism has to be independent or else it’s marketing. That’s the theory anyway. In practice things are changing, but are they doing so for the better?
In media training sessions I sometimes get asked why journalists won’t let an interviewee change their quotes. The reasons are many: by asking to check quotes you’re hinting that we can’t do our jobs, our job is to reflect what was said rather than what you wish you’d said (unless there’s a factual inaccuracy), and above all we’re supposed to be independent and not someone who works for you. Except things are getting a little blurred.
Advertorials have been commonplace for some time. The deal is relatively simple: a company pays a publisher to write (or supplies the copy for) something that looks like an article but is in fact an advert. As long as it says something like “advertising promotion” across the top, the reader knows what they’re getting and nobody minds. The unwritten rule is that it has to be well written.
Now look at this article: http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/forbes-aims-to-bring-journalists-and-advertisers-together-on-the-page-through-new-co-storytelling-approach/?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2016-11-21&utm_source=Press+Gazette+Daily+new+layout
For those who don’t want to, the essence is that for six years, Forbes has been putting journalistic copy alongside marketing copy so that there is an element of what it calls “co-storytelling”. So someone like me might write something on one page about, say, the Google Pixel phone, while someone from Google writes their account on another. Their copy gets labelled as promotional.
So far, so good. Except…would that someone like me be writing about the thing in the first place if the company hadn’t booked the promotion? Therefore, if the piece wouldn’t have existed without the fee, is it really independent?
There are variants of this, of course. Bloggers are an interesting example, sometimes not getting paid at all and some getting paid to promote products directly, without a clue as to why anyone should object. The unpaid variety sneer at journalists, who they say wouldn’t be writing about anything at all if they weren’t being paid by someone.
Which is a reasonable point of view. And then of course there’s the fake news – remember when Donald Trump said if he were to go into politics he’d be a Republican because they’ll believe anything? It’s a great quote but according to fact-checking site Snopes, he never said it.
For the moment at least, I’m going to stick with advising clients that the journalist is going to want to stay independent, won’t allow them to change quotes, won’t let them vet articles before they appear.
But I’ll be watching what happens carefully in case things change.