Analysis: Press Council spanks Herald and Stuff for sponsored content

The Herald reports:

The Press Council has issued a rebuke over the publication of sponsored content on Stuff and nzherald.co.nz that masquerades as news stories, noting that this practice is a breach of the professional standards expected of a trusted media and that some of the ‘stories’ published are simply inaccurate.

This is a huge slapdown. First, the Press Council is saying they are masquerading advertising as news, and secondly the “sponsored content” is fake.

The Press Council has undertaken consideration of this complaint on the basis that if material is being published in a way that makes it look as if it is genuine news it should, at least, be held to the same standards as news content.

The Council is also alarmed at the way news and advertising content has been mingled together beyond the control of news sites’ editors.

As they should be. Both sites work hard to fool you into clicking on sponsored content.

The decision relates to native advertising material that is dressed up as editorial content and placed at the bottom of each story page. In the ‘stories’ covered in this particular complaint, completely fictional characters – a Levin man, Paraparaumu kid and Christchurch taxi driver – were purported to have made considerable sums from investing in Bitcoin. Viewers were attracted to the material because it was localised to their hometowns and presented as news headlines. On accessing the supposed articles, readers were taken to Bitcoin promotional material.

So the sponsored content is fake, using made-up locations to con people.

While the publications argue the content is advertising and they use visual cues to distinguish this paid content from independent news, the Council has ruled those cues fall short of international best practice, as does the mixing of news and advertising. The content is so clearly intended to look like news that the Council decided to accept the complaint and consider its impact on journalism standards in this country. As a result, we are urging the news sites to harden the lines between news and advertising, to ensure transparency and protect the New Zealand media’s hard-won reputation for independent and high quality journalism. Readers deserve nothing less.

Well done the Press Council. NZME’s response:

NZME and the New Zealand Herald, like other publishers across the industry, rely on the revenue that advertising generates to ensure that we can continue to deliver the latest breaking news to its readership from the best journalists in New Zealand. Native advertising, when properly disclosed, helps us to achieve this.

Their argument is that if we con enough people into reading fake sponsored content, then that can fund the real news. And they wonder why trust in media is so low.

Despite our belief that we were complying with international standards, NZME has carefully considered the points of the Press Council and swiftly made changes to the Outbrain widget which appears on the New Zealand Herald digital site. These changes include:

A physical separation of content which is:
• Reticulated within the New Zealand Herald site (such as other, related stories published by the New Zealand Herald), under a header called “Recommended”; and
• External links provided by Outbrain, under a header called “Paid Content” (or similar);
• Any images related to external links will continue to show the external website name immediately below the image. 

Sounds like an improvement.

The full Press Council ruling is here. Some key aspects:

In the Herald, news stories, stories from other news sites and ads are in fact melded together under the ‘Recommended’ banner, as Cropp concedes. Therefore, when Cropp asks if the sponsored content is “part of an editorial framework or advertising framework?” the answer can only be: both. ‘Recommended’ as a headline does next to nothing to alert readers to the fact that much of the content below is paid and not independent journalism; quite to the contrary, it implies that the content linked to is somehow special and is endorsed by the Herald. Given that this content is paid and includes either advertising or stories from sites of dubious merit, including the made-up Bitcoin headlines, such an endorsement sends a worrying message to readers.

Stuff does more to assist its readers, separating the ads and paid content from other sites [promoted stories] from its links to its own stories [more from stuff]. It also has a thin border above and below the content, which the Herald does not. Yet it’s disturbing that it still labels the native ad content as “stories”.

So both sites promote these advertisements as stories.

On Frewen’s complaint under Principle 1, the headlines employed on both sites are clearly inaccurate. There is no Levin man, Paraparaumu kid or Christchurch taxi driver. They are figments of an algorithm’s imagination and are deliberately designed to deceive and dress up advertising as news. In fact, the headlines are total fiction.

And the headlines to get you to click on the “stories” are fiction.

Political commentator David Farrar posts at Kiwiblog.