Sponsored content, social media and “news”

I am sympathetic to news sites seeking new sources of funding. In the days of print, this might have come in the form of an “advertorial.” Clearly marked, these ads-written-as-news went into the trash the next day with the rest of the paper.

These days, they call is sponsored content and it is often well-marked, and then maybe it isn’t — when it comes up on social media. It looks like journalism, but it’s not; it’s marketing.  But, I would guess that many readers can’t tell the difference. That’s the whole point. It gains the same kind of credibility as a news story that aims to promote the facts, not the product.  And, social media is where many of us get our news these days.

Add that to all the institutional websites — companies, hospitals, universities — producing journalistic stories that are aimed at marketing their products, like a $250,000 bachelor’s degree. Many of my students don’t know the difference between The Huntington News— an independent student paper — and Northeastern News  a marketing section of NU web site written in journalistic style. Whats the difference? At NU news, the customer is NU. The items there are meant to inform the community about things NU wants them to know about.  At the Huntington News,  the customer is the campus community and not all the stories show NU in a positive way.

Not a problem with any of that, unless you can’t tell the difference.

The sponsored event is  another example of the trend — see below. These are big dilemmas and not easily resolved as journalism moves beyond the days of print advertising.  But, let start by recognizing it. This Health News Review story is a good place to start, especially for health writers like. me

aspen-ideas-festival-spotlight-health-2017-the-atlantic-1-768x593As pleased as I was to see smart people grappling with the problem of misleading health news last week at the Aspen Ideas Festival, I don’t think it’s accurate to suggest that “fake” stories are a major problem with health news today.

“Fake Health News Metastasizes” was the title of the Aspen session addressing this topic, and it was covered by The Atlantic with a story headlined ‘Of All the Categories of Fake News, Health News Is the Worst.”

The term “fake news,” as we’ve previously explained, suggests an intentional attempt to deceive. And as the The Atlantic piece eventually clarifies, it’s much more common to see “junk” health news that stems from inaccurate, incomplete, and imbalanced reporting by “real” news outlets rather than deliberately “fake” news.

But perhaps the larger problem with The Atlantic’s coverage is the lack of self-awareness it demonstrates. There’s no recognition that The Atlantic, co-sponsor of the Festival, is contributing to the very problem it highlights.


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