The blogosphere is abuzz with the story of Jeff Gerstmann, who was fired from GameSpot after a negative review of an advertiser's video game. The company that owns GameSpot insists that this was not the reason for his firing, but neither side will comment on the real reason, hiding behind laws that apparently prevent that.
Closer to home, La Presse chief editorialist André Pratte paid a visit to Francs-Tireurs this week (Part 1 of the interview deals with his views on sovereignty in case you're interested). In it, he says there's no "red phone" from the bosses to tell him what to write. However, the paper has an editorial viewpoint, and its opinions follow that.
Over the years, Big Media learned that it's in their best interest to separate advertising from editorial content. Otherwise, readers wouldn't trust them and would move on to competing papers.
But while many still follow that mantra officially, various methods have come up for advertisers to influence the editorial process that news media have accepted don't cross the line:
- Advertising features: Popular in newspapers, these are advertisements that have layouts that make them look like real newspaper articles. Headlines, bylines, photo captions. Only the tiny word "advertisement" (or in some cases confusing terms like "marketing feature" or "sponsored feature" or "advertising section") at the top tells you that the content has been paid for. Some newspapers require that such sections use fonts that are clearly different from the editorial content, others don't.
- Press releases as news: Media outlets subscribe to press releases from Canada NewsWire and others as if they were wire services. In many cases, that's how they find out about stories. When you read about that new medical breakthrough, or that survey, or damning statement from a lobby group, chances are the news outlet got that information through a press release. Because groups have to pay to have their releases distributed, it gives an air of authority to the statement. It also discriminates against poor, less organized groups to find your news in this fashion. Issues that people don't want to (or can't) pay hundreds of dollars to get in the hands of journalists don't get reported.
- Sponsored, but "hands off" coverage: This is what special sections are all about. Companies offer to place advertisements around articles about a specific subject. They make no demands concerning the content of those articles. This is why you see special sections on big-budget things like home renovation, travel, cars, business issues, fashion, but no special sections on world hunger. In smaller publications, this quid pro quo can cross the line even further. Many small businesses actually think they can demand articles be written about them in exchange for advertising.
- Free gifts: Actual gifts are supposed to be strictly limited. But all sorts of exceptions exist: Free copies of books are much more likely to be evaluated, underpaid journalists are likely to accept a bribe of free food in exchange for attending a press conference or corporate event, and then much more likely to write about them.
- Self-censorship: There don't have to be official policies against pissing off big advertisers or owners, but journalists aren't stupid. Many won't take the chance if they can avoid it. They write good stories and gloss over bad ones. Meanwhile, behind the scenes they rant about how horrible the company is to fellow journalists, in a way they would never do in print or in public.
- Finding an excuse: GameSpot said their firing decision was based on an internal review and not on a game company/advertiser's complaints. That actually sounds entirely plausible. Nobody's a model employee, and it's usually fairly easy to find something about an undesirable that's grounds for dismissal. Unless they're part of a powerful union, you can fire them and have a ready-made excuse for their lawyer or the media. It also has the advantage of keeping other employees in line (see "self-censorship" above).
- Buddy-buddy at the top levels: As Big Media get huge, and their advertisers too, big corporate bosses find themselves meeting socially often. Threats turn into favours, and bribes turn into unwritten mutual agreements.
- Yes men: Middle-management quickly learn that in order to succeed they have to agree with everything their higher-ups tell them. Self-criticism is shunned. Original ideas are ignored or stolen. Advancement is more about ass-kissing than talent and experience. Not rocking the boat is paramount.
- Cross-promotion: Media properties do stories about other properties belonging to the same owner. A Gazette article about a Global TV show, a TVA documentary about the Journal de Montréal. The coverage itself may not be biased, but the reason behind it is.
When Pratte says there's no red phone by his desk, I believe him. Big Media publishers and owners are simply too busy making money to care about micromanaging the day-to-day news decisions of their media properties. They have other people hired to do that. It's very rare that an order comes from the very top that seriously affects journalistic integrity. And when it does, there's usually a backlash.
So pressures become much more subtle. Advertising is the biggest source of revenue for almost any media operation. They know that it's hard to exist without it. And so they justify the blurring of the line between editorial and advertising as a necessary evil to stay alive.
Some even call it "innovative."