January 15, 2013

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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Julie Moos (jmoos@poynter.org) has been Director of Poynter Online and Poynter Publications since 2009. Previously, she was Editor of Poynter Online (2007-2009) and Poynter Publications…
Julie Moos

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