The Atlantic publishes then pulls sponsored content from Church of Scientology

About 11 hours after it was published online, The Atlantic removed sponsored content about the Church of Scientology.

The news organization apologized for the incident in a statement Tuesday:

We screwed up. It shouldn’t have taken a wave of constructive criticism — but it has — to alert us that we’ve made a mistake, possibly several mistakes. 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. In the meantime, we have decided to withdraw the ad until we figure all of this out. We remain committed to and enthusiastic about innovation in digital advertising, but acknowledge—sheepishly—that that we got ahead of ourselves. We are sorry, and we’re working very hard to put things right.

Journalists noticed the sponsored content Monday evening, including some at The Atlantic, and it was removed soon after.

In place of the content that recounted the opening of 12 new Scientology churches around the world, there is now a message that reads, “We have temporarily suspended this advertising campaign pending a review of our policies that govern sponsor content and subsequent comment threads.”

Journalists had raised questions about how comments on the sponsored content were moderated, compared to how comments are moderated on other Atlantic content.

Initial comments on the story appeared to be exclusively supportive of Scientology, including these:

Read more comments on this screenshot from Ben Welsh.

Later comments were more skeptical.

Read more later comments here.

Atlantic spokesperson Natalie Raabe tells The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, “Our marketing team was monitoring some of the comments,” which has triggered the need to review that process.

The sponsored page carried a Scientology banner ad across the top and linked to two stories on the Scientology website.

Related content on the page, which appears across The Atlantic and is not specific to sponsored content, includes a link posted around 8:30 p.m. Monday to a post by Jeffrey Goldberg praising Lawrence Wright’s new book investigating Scientology.

The content, headlined “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year,” is labeled “Sponsor Content.” Mousing over “what’s this” next to the “Sponsor Content” label, readers see this explanation:

This sponsored content is highlighted with a yellow bar. Not all sponsored content on The Atlantic website carries that yellow flag.

Sponsored content — or “native advertising” — is produced by the news organization to look and feel like the site’s own editorial work; it has becoming increasingly appealing to several news organizations, including The Atlantic and BuzzFeed.

In an interview last year with Digiday’s Josh Sternberg, Atlantic publisher Jay Lauf said, “A lot of people worry about crossing editorial and advertising lines, but I think it respects readers more … It’s saying, ‘You know what you’re interested in.’ It’s more respectful of the reader that way.”

Sternberg reports that the “Native Solutions” program, started three years ago and supported by a 15-person creative team, “now accounts for half of digital ad revenue” at the Atlantic.

In an interview published today, Economist managing editor Paul Rossi tells Sternberg, “The opportunity for media companies is to create content that’s compelling for users on behalf of advertisers. … The real issue is how do you make content that’s compelling to a reader that doesn’t feel like an ad. That’s the real challenge.”

The ethical challenges associated with this relatively new form of digital advertising have remained largely unexplored:

  • What standards are applied to the process of accepting sponsors?
  • How are those standards similar to or different than any applied to the organization’s other advertising or sponsorship activities?
  • What is the process for creating sponsored content?
  • How is that process similar to or different than the editorial process for creating other content?
  • What, if any, safeguards are or should be in place to anticipate situations like this one in which the editorial content and sponsored content may conflict?
  • How is the process for commenting on sponsored content similar to or different than the process for commenting on other content?
  • And what is the process for removing sponsored content? Did this content violate particular standards, and if so, which standards?
  • How transparent is a news organization obligated to be with readers about the way sponsored content is handled?
  • Given the potential for confusion, does a news organization have special responsibilities beyond its standards for explaining other publishing?

Before it was pulled, the Scientology content (embedded in full below and available as a PDF) was shared more than 3,500 times on Twitter and Facebook.

Disclosure: The Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times has published multiple investigations of Scientology, which has headquarters in nearby Clearwater, Fla.

The Atlantic 14 January 2013 – David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year by Louanne Lee

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  • Kimm Ryland

    If you think Phyllis`s story is impossible,, 3 weaks-ago my aunties neighbour basically broght in $4796 sitting there an eleven hour week from their apartment and there neighbor’s mother`s neighbour done this for 6 months and earned more than $4796 part time on-line. use the tips at this address, jump15.comCHECK IT OUT

  • Brian Gorman

    Is there something wrong with my eyes, or did Atlantic change all their layout and typography after the fact? Putting this up against Atlantic editorial content reveals the same tipoffs print publications use to alert readers to paid comment: the yellow “sponsored content” flag, the blue, sans serif headline (the editorial content is black, serif) the weird spindly body copy. The airy layout. The fact that there are no legitimate stories promo-ed around it.

    I think anyone who has ever read a newspaper would spot this for what it is in an instant.

    As for the question of what is arguably the best magazine in the English-speaking world accepting this load from such a suspect advertiser … that’s another story altogether.

  • Rod Downburst Johnson

    Louanne, I think you mean “whoops, Julie, I overlooked your attribution before my little hissy fit. I apologize for being, well, kind of an asshat above.”

  • Shuruppag

    Don’t bet on it.

  • J Balin

    Presenting first party propaganda as second party opinion is fraud. *Any* attempt to hide that action is contributing to the fraud and thus all attempts to spin advertising as editorial content, whether it is non-obvious or unknown site names, similar layouts, similar colors, obscured/tiny notices or suppressing second/third party comment without notice is contributing to the fraud. There is no gray area or digital “innovation” no matter how much advertisers and marketers wish there was. That fraud is important otherwise advertisers would not be willing to pay as much as they do for it (remember, they get that money from the people they are defrauding) and people who do it should be punished. Most of the “ethical challenges” mentioned in the above article are easily resolved when you understand this.

  • Horace Klein

    Yes, they made several mistakes in this regard. However none of that has anything to do with ‘free speech’ which is a natural right that it is the job of governments to insure.

  • Horace Klein

    Another word for this is whore.

  • facebook-749911534

    Rcoaster, I am on this. Please contact me at bikolang AT gmail with more details, am longtime Stology critic, have media contacts. Dish more here or email moi. Re same IP, same bldg, S center in Vcouver. The propaganda dept at LRH’s place is in full op. Funny, for a sci fi storyteller to have created such a weird tragic cult in his later years, maybe will have to wait for passing of Miscarriage until the cult dies off of its own accord. I’ve seen videos of Hubbard giving speeches in 1950s to followers, and believe you me, he KNEW and was AWARE, self-aware, that he was pulling everyone’s leg. He had that twinkle in this eye that said “Can you believe I am pulling this thing off?”

  • facebook-749911534

    IMHO: if this advertiser in this story had been Hitler’s Nazi Party in 1933 or 1939 or 1941, would the Atlantic have let the advert stand? Ask yourself this question. Not to compare the Scientology cult with the cult of Hitler, but there are similariries in terms of propaganda, the big lie, and disappearing former members [and wives], no? Shame on Atlantic for putting the Almight Dollar above publishing ethics. This advert went beyond the pale, and there will be hell to pay for the Atlantic brand for quite some time to come. What was Jay Lauf smoking that day?

  • facebook-749911534

    userid named ”raincoaster” comment HERE below , check, needs to be looked into:

    Julie? RE: raincoaster said — ”When I got comment-bombed with pro-Scientology comments, I did a little investigation and they were all made from the same IP, which traced to a building in downtown Vancouver with the same address as the Scientology center. I’d be very curious to look at those Atlantic comment IPs. Do you think the Atlantic [or Poynter] will be reporting a follow to THAT story?’

  • Robert Eckert

    And thank YOU, Julie. Independent examination and analysis is much appreciated.

  • VictorGarber

    …..—– (Click on Home)

  • VictorGarber

    what Don answered I’m blown away that a student able to get paid $9083 in 1 month on the network.

  • raincoaster

    When I got comment-bombed with pro-Scientology comments, I did a little investigation and they were all made from the same IP, which traced to a building in downtown Vancouver with the same address as the Scientology center. I’d be very curious to look at those Atlantic comment IPs. Do you think the Atlantic will be reporting THAT story?

  • Mrs Libnish

    Free speech? FREE SPEECH???? That is the reason why Anonymous is so far up Corporate Scientology’s butt right now because of their unwillingness to ALLOW free speech. It’s only allowable if it endorses the cult? And if it speaks against the cult then those should be “Fair Gamed”? Hmmmm….go talk to John Sweeney about that one. Or Shawn Lonsdale (R.I.P.). That was the dumbest thing I’ve ever read by you Louanne. You should know better than that.

  • Poynter

    Hi, Dee. Thanks very much. We are working on a follow-up piece that expands on this analysis. I’ll add a link here once it’s published. –Julie Moos

  • Dee Fogger

    Great job, Ms. Moos, in articulating the ethical questions surrounding this type of advertising and comment moderation. I’d enjoy an expanded commentary on those issues. I spent time last night, as this was happening, pondering many of the issues you’ve raised and am sure they are what the Atlantic is struggling with at the moment.

    Also, you missed the best comment by B.B. Broeker: “Such beautiful buildings! It’s such a shame that Shelley Miscavage couldn’t join here husband at the gala openings!”.It’s a gem of snark. The moderators must have been unaware that Mrs. Miscavige has mysteriously disappeared and was last seen in about 2007.

  • DeElizabethan

    I believe John P was Very explicit in his comments and can only add,

    A favorite quote from Sweeny’s book “Church of Fear”…
    “The church boasts of having 11 million square feet of property around the world, a somewhat idiosyncratic index of holiness.”

  • bleedingheart67

    People tend to (conveniently) forget that “free speech” means the government cannot limit speech under the law. It does not require a private company to publish anything and everything or otherwise be labeled a “censor.”

  • Josh Davis

    I really don’t have an issue with them running sponsored content (even from organizations I don’t like). My issues is that they either should have the comments closed, or they should run comments in the same manner as they do on a regular story.

  • Louanne

    Hi Julie, thank you for responding so fast! All good. – L

  • Louanne

    I am not trying to be neutral. But I am trying to be fair.

  • stillgrace

    Where is Shelly Miscavige’s right to free speech? I have only your best interests at heart, Louanne, when I say: Run towards the light. Save yourself! Tick Tock. I promise not to say I told you so.

  • John P.

    Julie, you should note that Louanne is one of the most prolific Scientology shills on the Internet, by the way. It’s believed that she’s not an employee of the cult, but a dedicated member who does this virtually full time. She is hardly a neutral party. Google “scientology louanne” (without the quotes) and see what happens.

    Louanne, please note that the only free speech issue here is the censoring of the many negative comments that The Atlantic sat on. I’m not sure you’d want to be crying “free speech” when correcting the only free speech issue in sight would inevitably result in publication of many comments that would reveal to The Atlantic’s audience numerous details of malfeasance, criminality, and appalling behavior by the cult you defend so vehemently.

    An advertisement can hardly be seen as a “free speech” issue; it’s a business issue entirely. The Atlantic can refund the cult’s money (or not) and that would be the end of it; litigation against the site for suppressing the cult’s right to “free speech” would end badly for Scientology, but at least the rest of the world would reap lots of laughs as you shoot yourselves in the foot yet again.

  • Poynter

    Hi, Louanne. Thanks for posting the document. It’s attributed to you in the post (right beneath it, with a link back to your Scribd account). Is there somewhere else you think the attribution belongs as well? If so, I’ll be happy to add it. Thanks again, Julie Moos/Director of Poynter Online

  • Poynter

    Thanks for the very thoughtful comment, John. Poynter will certainly continue to cover this case and native advertising more generally as journalism tries to innovate its business models. There are many unanswered questions worth exploring. Thanks again, Julie Moos / Director of Poynter Online

  • Louanne

    Thanks for posting my PDF (you teach what you find on the web does not have to be attributed, right?)

    Oh, and a BIG BOOO! to The Atlantic for damaging free speech.

  • John P.

    Assuming that it was a good idea at all to accept this ad from an organization with a history of abuse, financial sleaze, intimidation of its critics, and out-and-out unabashedly criminal behavior (Google “Operation Snow White”), The Atlantic did a couple of things that fanned the flames of criticism that they’re reaping today:

    1. Used the euphemism “Sponsored Content” instead of “Advertising.” While I (and presumably most of The Atlantic’s readership) know perfectly well that these are synonyms, it still looks like the use of the more “polite” term is trying to gull the unwary. This was the only indication that the story was an advertorial.

    2. Use of a layout that is identical to news stories in type face, layout, etc. Typically, print magazines running advertorials require a different layout, specifically requiring a different type face. The Scientology advertorial was absolutely identical to the standard story layout. Even if you caught the “Sponsored Content” tag at the top as I did, seeing the identical layout still felt sleazy.

    3. Censoring of comments, which was easy enough to determine was occurring. To those of us who are activists against this evil organization, we certainly recognized the prose style of the pro-cult shills. But the tip-off that anyone could have spotted was that, after about 25 comments were up, the comment system recorded a smattering of “like” votes for each of the pro-cult comments, but in almost all cases, well over 100 “thumbs down” votes. It’s inconceivable that a controversial article would have only positive comments, each of which had a crushing volume of negative votes, but that none of the hundreds of people voting against the comments would take the time to write a negative comment themselves.

    The brand damage that The Atlantic has administered to themselves in this ill-considered adventure is probably going to be considerable (and permanent) unless they come up with a comprehensive and visionary solution to the problem of advertorial sleaze. I hope Poynter will study this further as a case study in furthering its mission.

  • Sean Gallagher

    Ham-fisted. A business side playing at the web.

  • MrJM

    “Have the people running the Atlantic forgotten every tenet of honorable journalism?”
    – Eddie Ellner, Pro Wrestling Illustrated.

  • Khoa Phạm

    Each one has his own reasons. Let’s time to demostrate the truth

  • Ken Presting

    If editors and publishers continue to debase themselves and their brands, readers might come to depend on the quality of arguments and evidence.