What journalists need to know about ‘content marketing’

When a major newspaper suspends a vendor for faking bylines and a bestselling author/journalist goes down in flames over fabricated quotes in the same month, the magnifying glass suddenly focuses inward on an industry meant to expose truth.

Add the misreporting of a monumental Supreme Court decision and an HBO show not-so-subtly skewering cable news, and we’ve had a summer full of ethical discussion.

Today’s journalist faces an abundance of ethical challenges, some due to fast-paced publishing pressure, others to new, growing opportunities for work.

In particular, the swelling ranks practicing “content marketing” are giving rise to a new class of ethical dilemma.

Content marketing, aka editorial content published by advertisers in lieu of banner ads, (think BuzzFeed’s sponsored stories or Red Bull’s Media House), is the business buzzphrase of 2012. When brands skip the middleman and publish their own media, it’s called content marketing. It’s also sometimes referred to as brand journalism or custom content.

In a typical issue of Vogue, editorial content is essentially funded by a barrage of glossy advertisements between the pages. That’s how “traditional publishing” works. But now more than ever, brands that once advertised in Vogue are creating their own fashion magazines, writing the stories themselves and owning all the ads. The lack of product placement in stories sets content marketing apart from “advertorial,” or ads disguised as content. This is what makes people actually want to consume a brand’s content; it looks like something they’d read anyway.

The advent of custom content

The digital revolution has spurred an increasing number of these less experienced, less traditional publishers to foray into the media industry. Some 75 percent of corporations surveyed by the Custom Content Council are shifting spending from ads to content, according to a 2011 study. Many of these corporations are unaware of the ethical guidelines that are widely accepted by traditional publications.

This is the trend I stumbled upon at my startup company, Contently, as we’ve built a marketplace and tools for freelance reporters. Brands are spending millions of dollars to hire journalists to produce content like that on GE’s Ecomagination.com and Gilt Groupe’s Park & Bond. Sponsored content is how Mashable and Forbes.com monetize their websites and how corporations like Proctor and Gamble are beating banner blindness. It’s feeding displaced journalists and fueling a revolution away from content farms and toward high fidelity information on the Web.

As BuzzFeed President Jon Steinberg puts it, “A few years ago there was a question of whether or not brands could be content creators.” Today, BuzzFeed’s business model is entirely fueled by branded content. Steinberg says in an email interview, “In social, only content works. Banner ads don’t flow.”

The good news is this surge in well-compensated writing opportunities is helping beleaguered journalists pay bills and fund passion projects.

The bad news is the brand publishing world has no universal set of ethical standards. There’s no Society of Professional Journalists for content marketing. Brands have motivations that sometimes conflict with the values of traditional journalism, putting reporters who work for them in a pickle.

Ask yourself: What would you do if a client asked you to scrub mentions of a competitor from a story? Or what if a brand wanted to hide the fact that it’s behind a piece of content it hired you to produce? Could your answer to either of these change if you worked on behalf of a corporation rather than a “neutral” news organization?

Fortunately, social media seems to ferret out and publicize the sketchiest publishing behavior, which encourages content purveyors to act with integrity. But best practices are not the same thing as ethics, and often the gray line is blurry.

Tips for handling brand content

So how should journalists evaluate “editorial” gigs coming their way from brands? Here are four ways.

Understand the differences between objective journalism and “brand content”

In a recent phone interview about the broader topics of journalism ethics, Bob Steele, Phyllis W. Nicholas Director of The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University, said: “In many ways I think there is an inherent incompatibility between the principles that guide journalists and principles that guide information providers. I think that is what we have in this era, is a lot of information providers.”

As more journalists engage in producing content for brands, more are asking what to do when a client asks for something that makes a journalist uncomfortable.

The foundation of ethical publishing is honesty. “But accept the fact that [branded content]’s not journalism. It’s a very different animal,” said Steele, Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values.

At a traditional publication, a reporter essentially works for an index of advertisers and is unable to choose what sponsor’s message pays for her column. In content marketing, reporters often work on behalf of a single sponsor, which offers a degree of choice that can be refreshing. But because brand communications invite scrutiny, sponsored reporters ought to choose gigs from companies whose goals and values they feel comfortable with.

Make honesty the highest priority

SPJ defines journalism’s core ethical values as the following:

To seek the truth as fully as possible
To act independently
To seek to minimize harm
To be accountable

The American Society of News Editors ratifies similar principles: responsibility, vigilance, independence and truth. But it adds another: clearly identifying opinion from news. Every major publication or journalism organization seems to have some variation on these themes. Poynter’s include transparency, helpfulness, and interdependence. The New York Times Ethical Journalism Handbook urges transparency when a reporter’s background or relationships may pose a conflict of interest.

In a few cases, brand publishers have developed guidelines or are helmed by journalists. Scott Roen, vice president of digital at American Express (a Contently customer), says in an interview, “To be an effective journalist you must hold yourself to extremely high ethical guidelines. I don’t think there’s a difference in ethics as a brand journalist versus any other kind of journalist.”

At Contently, we’ve assembled our own Content Marketing Code of Ethics to answer some of these questions. It’s a work in progress, but it’s a starting point.

Never allow readers to be deceived

With the exception, perhaps, of independence, branded content ought to abide by the same principles as journalism: honesty and fairness, accountability and transparency. And because the goal of brand journalism is to create a favorable impression of a brand in order to further various business goals, disclosure must be added to its list of ethics principles.

Brands, and those commissioned by them, ought to hold themselves to higher standards of disclosure than their cousins in traditional media, where legal protections for communications are stronger.

It’s all about not deceiving readers. Brand publishers should make clear who is behind a piece of content and why. Journalists who write for brands need to ensure their clients understand the ethical reasons for such disclosure.

Disclose anything that resembles a conflict

The Internet and social media universe of content is replete with examples of journalists managing potential conflicts (Kara Swisher, for example). Without exception, those who manage to remain respected in their careers fully disclose their work history, relationships, and biases. It’s my opinion that this ought to be standard practice for all journalists, regardless of whether their personal lives include marriages to Google execs or side gigs shooting photos for American Airlines.

What about the careers of journalists who write for brands? Can a reporter do work on behalf of a brand on Monday, and file a story for The New York Times on Tuesday?

“Certainly in many cases past connections or jobs would not pose an insurmountable conflict for someone otherwise qualified,” says Philip Corbett, associate managing editor for standards at The New York Times. “We can’t expect that someone would have adhered to all our rules when they weren’t working for us.”

On the other hand, he says, certain types of past experience — such as being an official corporate spokesperson — might pose too big a hurdle for certain jobs. “But I don’t think doing a corporate stint would preclude someone from a Times job in an unrelated area,” Corbett said.

Dialogue is necessary

This is just the start of a larger discussion that we need to have about ethics and the future of journalism.

As Lehrer scrambles to salvage his career and news organizations evaluate their relationship with Journatic, journalism itself must figure out its next move. New players and new forms are coming to the content industry. As journalists, we need to promote a framework for ethics in these new industries if we want to maintain the integrity of our craft.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/mark.l.hunter.5 Mark Lee Hunter

    Brilliant and timely article; we’ve posted it to the Stakeholder Media Project page on Facebook. Shane Snow’s observation about the ethics of content marketing — in essence, no one’s worked them out — apply equally to the ensemble of media created by stakeholder groups. This issue is not going away. Many thanks to Poynter for once again leading the pack.