In 2018, Vote.org bought full-page ads in nearly every student newspaper across the United States. It was one of the largest advertisement campaigns in the country to encourage younger voters to participate in their midterm elections.
In that case, a nonpartisan organization was encouraging young Americans to vote — hardly a controversial topic. But as election season hits full swing, campaigns are once again trying to connect with young voters, and some of them carry more polarizing messages. Student journalists should understand the ethical concerns of running political advertisements, and draft clear policies for their publication.
The principles are fairly basic. Media organizations should treat political ads just as they would treat other advertisements.
“There’s nothing about a political ad that causes any ethical concerns unless the ads contain untrue information or feature libelous or vulgar language,” said Poynter senior faculty Al Tompkins.
Here’s a good example to talk through in your newsroom. On Thursday, The Washington Post ran an ad for President Donald Trump. The Post earned lots of flack online, in part because the ad linked to a series of videos with false information.
As Poynter’s Tom Jones explained, “if you are going to run an ad from a candidate, it seems there is a responsibility to make sure the claims made in that ad — or the claims made in the video links in the ad — are true.”
Student papers should also be especially careful about placement online, in print and on the air. Consider making clear that the advertisement is sponsored by a specific candidate or organization.
“I wouldn’t allow product placement on stories about the topics (candidates are) covering,” Tompkins said. “The problem here mostly has to do with perception, the perception that your coverage is for sale. … It undercuts the journalism by making it appear that the journalism is merely an advertisement.”
There are three main types of ads student journalists can expect to encounter.
- Nonprofit, nonpartisan advertisements: These ads typically encourage students to vote. They are not sponsored by a specific candidate or viewpoint. (Some examples include Vote.org, Rock the Vote.)
- Cause-based advertisements: These advertisements focus on specific political issues, typically sponsored by an organization. If there’s a specific ballot issue coming up in November locally, organizations may reach out to buy an advertisement that encourages young voters to choose a certain option.
- Candidate-based advertisements: These encourage voters to pick a particular candidate on either the municipal, regional, state or national level.
For each type of advertisement, it’s important to keep fairness laws in mind. Once a political ad is printed endorsing a specific candidate, the publication is obligated to run an ad for an opponent, should that opponent reach out. The Post, for example, will have to run a Biden ad if his campaign wishes to do so.
Flytedesk, a Boulder-based startup that connects advertisers with college media, said student media organizations shouldn’t shy away from running these ads.
“It’s a really big opportunity for college media. That’s part of where we begin the conversation,” said Alex Kronman, CEO and co-founder of Flytedesk. “It’s really important to take political advertising — yes, from a revenue perspective, but also from a freedom of speech perspective.”
Front-end conversations about your advertising guidelines are vital. Set your framework now before the advertiser’s standing at the door, and have conversations across platforms to make sure that you understand what it means to sell an advertisement for the student newspaper, the website or the radio station.
Political ads are a part of free speech and a good revenue source for your newsroom. But be sure that what you publish is fair, accurate and doesn’t interfere with your coverage.
Eliana Miller is a recent graduate of Bowdoin College. You can reach her on Twitter @ElianaMM23, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.