Separation of news, ads

Red Wing Republican Eagle
Aug. 19, 1999

An advertiser contacts the Republican Eagle to ask for news coverage of what is strictly a promotional event. Another business may threaten to pull advertising in a disagreement about editorial policy. In each case, the issue is decided on merit without regard to pressure.

The strength of newspapers is built on the separation of news and advertising. That’s often a challenge, especially in small markets where the support of a major advertiser can be very important.

In contrast, the line between news and advertising is becoming increasingly blurred in the television/entertainment industry. A case in point is last week’s announcement by IBM Corp. of its intent to help clean up prime-time television. Fed up with the overabundance of sex, violence and profanity, a small group of advertisers, including IBM, says it will pay to have writers develop wholesome scripts for consideration by the WB network.

The advertisers deserve plaudits for putting money behind their convictions. But the generosity also muddies the separation between those who produce program content and those who support programs through advertising dollars.

Should the creative side of the entertainment industry be taken over by big advertisers, or anyone else, for that matter? The notion is a slippery slope. Intense competition for advertising dollars has resulted in TV news programs shifting to entertainment with much less regard for the facts.

Advertisers already influence network decisions by boycotting a show or, as in this latest announcement, by offering to submit content that is suitable from their perspective. The real danger is if — or is it when — advertisers dictate program content.

Advertising revenue obviously is important to the press, too. And we don’t suggest that we have deaf ears to requests of customers — whether they are big or small.

Indeed, there are legitimate business stories. And some events, though promotional in nature, are communitywide news. As with all story ideas, each request is evaluated on its individual merits.

In the end, though, news value should be the major criteria in deciding when an event warrants coverage. That’s in the best interests of everyone — advertisers and readers alike.