When Advertisers Influence Coverage

We all read about it on one platform or another. We’ve witnessed it during the course of the current Administration and with celebrity endorsement contracts. I’m talking about advertising and coverage in the media. How ethical is it for a publication to avoid covering certain people, institutions or brands all because the brand is a large supporter? While it seems like a straight forward answer – in theory – the reality is that it is not as straight forward in practice.

I recently came across an article that asked the same question in the context of government – which resonated with me because not only do we see it in action with certain publications, but I’ve been witness to it. Especially on a local level. Certain publications will not cover stories on controversial subjects to avoid the backlash it could have for the business. The article, linked above, covers a small Mexican publication that had funding pulled after a series of stories ran that were critical of the administration and pointed out many conflicts of interest within the administration. Which makes me wonder – how much should publications be allowed to take from public figures who want to advertise with them? Should there be a cap? While I understand that owning and running a newspaper publication is costly, I wonder if development can be done that separates funding from government figures and other sources of advertising dollars.

Having been in the industry in several capacities, it is common practice to make it clear that certain stories are advertorials, and not in any way a reflection or position of the publication. But when the advertiser is riddled with controversy and/or unethical practices – should publications put criteria in place to filter them out in order to avoid the risk of losing the funding they so deeply rely on to stay in business?

I’ve struggled with this notion throughout this administration’s term thus far and also in personal experiences. I still haven’t come to fully understand how to get around the conflicts of interest that exist in the media and how to filter out those that are genuine. But this doesn’t just go for advertising and government or public figures. This even goes with brands. Documentaries like Forks Over Knives uncover controversial connections that make one wonder if our American diet is actually making us sicker – and organizations that are tasked to combat diseases associated with poor diets are funded in large part by the suppliers of the very items that are making us sicker.

Maybe this is too much to think about at the end of the semester but as a student of USC, a critical thinker, and seeker of information I prefer transparency in everything I consume or do. It’s the worst feeling to find out I’ve been duped. I do my best to make informed choices and contribute to brands and causes and publications that are transparent and ethical – even if that means spending more. Does anyone else go through this and question everything we consume? Thanks for your time. Have a great break!

-Eren Cello

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