Atlantic introduces sponsored content guidelines that address the Scientology incident

The Atlantic has developed new guidelines for its use of sponsored content, after pulling and apologizing for a sponsored piece about Scientology earlier this month.

The company issued a statement at the time that read in part: “We now realize that as we explored new forms of digital advertising, we failed to update the policies that must govern the decisions we make along the way. It’s safe to say that we are thinking a lot more about these policies after running this ad than we did beforehand.”

The new policy issued today outlines the general principles The Atlantic will adhere to when running content produced or paid for by a sponsor, with the overall goal that “The Atlantic must maintain its editorial integrity and the trust of its readers.”

One key focus is on transparency:

The Atlantic will prominently display the following disclaimer on all Sponsor Content: ‘SPONSOR CONTENT.’ The Atlantic will additionally include the following disclaimer on all Sponsor Content: ‘This article is written by or on behalf of our Sponsor and not by The Atlantic’s editorial staff.’ The Atlantic may additionally include, in certain areas and platforms, further explanation defining Sponsor Content to Atlantic readers. In addition, The Atlantic will ensure the treatment and design of Advertising and Sponsor Content is clearly differentiated from its editorial content.

Another addresses the issue of working with controversial sponsors, such as the Church of Scientology:

Sponsor Content, like our own editorial content, will sometimes address contested issues and will be written with a distinct point of view. That said, even with the caveat that Sponsor Content reflects the views of an advertiser and not of The Atlantic or its editors, The Atlantic will refuse publication of such content that, in its own judgment, would undermine the intellectual integrity, authority, and character of our enterprise.

The news organization specifies the types of content they won’t accept:

The Atlantic may reject or remove any Sponsor Content at any time that contains false, deceptive, potentially misleading, or illegal content; is inconsistent with or may tend to bring disparagement, harm to reputation, or other damage to The Atlantic’s brand.

And finally, they address how to handle user commenting on sponsored content. If you recall, the Scientology post was also under fire because critical comments were scrubbed.

The Atlantic may in its sole discretion enable readers to comment on Sponsor Content on The Atlantic’s sites. If comment functionality is enabled on Sponsor Content, the sponsor will not have any role in moderating such comments. The only moderation of such comments will be performed by Atlantic employees who implement The Atlantic’s generally applicable Terms and Conditions (http://www.theatlantic.com/terms-and-conditions/)—which prohibit spam, obscenity, hate speech, and similar content—elsewhere on the site.

These new guidelines align pretty closely with the advice I gave for how news organizations can sell sponsored content without lowering their standards.

One unaddressed recommendation: I proposed they assign specific power and responsibility to an independent person to review and possibly reject sponsored content. The guidelines only describe what The Atlantic, as an institution, should do. But who will make the decisions and raise the questions? Hopefully that will be made clear internally, if not in the written policy.

Overall, I’d give The Atlantic pretty high marks for setting the right path. These guidelines won’t remove all the conflicts of interest and credibility pitfalls, but they’ll set the right framework for weighing the ethical concerns.

The only thing worse than making a bad mistake is not learning from it.

Atlantic Communications Director Natalie Raabe provided me some more background on the process behind the new policy:

We initiated a review of our advertising policies about two weeks ago after deciding to suspend a native advertising campaign running on our site. The Atlantic’s and Atlantic Media’s leadership—from sales, edit, marketing, product, legal, and elsewhere in the company—came together to discuss and write these policies.

We looked at policies at The New York Times, Facebook, and a few others, but in the course of our review, we didn’t find many others who publicly display their ad guidelines (especially those that relate to native advertisements).

The senior leadership of our sales and marketing teams have been having ongoing discussions with their divisions about these new policies and how best to implement them. There will be a more formal roll-out and training in the days ahead, and it will also be an integral part of the training process for our new employees.

Ad Week interviewed Atlantic President Scott Havens, who “didn’t rule out working with Scientology in the future,” Lucia Moses reports. Havens told her “there’s no way we can account for all kinds of situations that come our way.”

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001007868067 Synthia Elizabeth Fagen

    The bigger mistake the Atlantic made was in the censoring of the comment section. I do not begrudge them their right to sell ad space, clearly delineated as such. I do have a problem with them censoring comments. The comment section was there, I assume, as part of the fine line, advertorial deception to legitimize the piece as an organic article (most of which have comment sections these days).

    I doubt Scientology will ever buy space from them again but who knows, they do crazy stuff. They may just do it to prove to their bloated, donating whales that they “stood their ground” and got their (ridiculous) message out despite all suppressive forces against them. Oy vey.