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13th March 2017

This article is sponsored by…

Why write what you really think when you can be paid to write what you are told to?

“Our journalists, whose business is to fib” — from A Castaway, Augusta Davies Webster, 1870

It is a stereotype that is evidentially over a hundred years old. Journalists are notorious for being the exact opposite of what they are meant to be. If the news is truth, then why are those who report it continually brandished as slanderous liars?

Well, we aren’t helping ourselves. Political journalism is one thing — in politics, everyone has their own agenda and opinion, and everyone will interpret facts as they please. Although to the general public, some journalists may come across as utterly repugnant people (and some of them probably are), having opinions doesn’t really equate to lying.

What I find to be a very modern, recent problem in journalism is ‘sponsored’ journalism. It is essentially a new form of marketing, where an individual is paid by a company to promote their product or service while making it seem like they are actually just writing an investigative or informative piece.

My problem is not necessarily with advertising — I think that companies have every right to advertise their product — it is with the pretence that all views and opinions belong to the writer, when actually the writer is just being paid to use their position in the media to market various items and services. Imagine if film and music critics stopped giving honest reviews, and instead gave the highest ratings to the production companies and artists who paid them the most. It would render true opinion completely invalid.

On multiple occasions, I’ve received emails from companies who offer money for the publication to publish their articles — always described as “professional, high-quality content” — in reality just promoting their own website or product. They use words such as “collaborate”, “well-paid” and “exciting opportunity”, as though they can’t even admit to the editors of the paper that they are actually just looking for cheaper and better alternatives to advertising. If their writing is so “high-quality”, then why pay for it to appear in a student paper? Not only this, but the marketing companies are extremely pushy, often emailing several times following up on their offers. I can see how tempting it would be to earn some quick cash by publishing their sponsored pieces, but it is a case of journalistic integrity and quality. Attending free events or receiving samples or products in return for an honest opinion is one thing, but being outright paid to publicise them is another.

There has also been a noticeable increase in this type of ‘journalism’ on a particular online student-based publication. The format of the article is usually as follows; a catchy, click-bait headline which promises some form of experience-based piece — usually seemingly unrelated to the product — which then leads onto constant references to said product, shrouded in (unconvincing) rhetoric which suggests that the product is actually great.

Sometimes these articles have only a short, vague description, promise or question (e.g. that they’ll find out what job would best suit you after graduating) followed by a link to a completely different website that is usually only vaguely linked to the original article title.

It is frustrating at best, and makes journalists and student media come across as unreliable and sketchy. The advertising is not even that well-hidden; if you are going to shamelessly promote Deliveroo in your method-journalism piece about an unrelated experience, at least make sure that you actually talk about stuff other than ordering from Deliveroo.

This being said, advertising and the press do go hand in hand. Especially in the modern world, where people are far less willing to pay for a newspaper or magazine when they can access it free online, it is more difficult than ever to make a living through writing for or running a media outlet. Ads are completely necessary, but it is dangerous for them to become entwined and indistinguishable from the written content of the publication.

If a clothing brand wishes to advertise in the form of their own advert and pay for that space in the paper or online, that is fine. The fashion writers still have their own agency and opinions, their own choice and — presumably — the desire to communicate their true feelings with the reader.

If the two are merged, then the reader has essentially gained nothing from the experience except being lied to. If anything it is lazy on the journalists’ part, and they may as well pack up and move into a career in marketing instead.

Perhaps it is my own fault for falling for the click-bait and for actually reading the car-crash television equivalents of the article world, but next time I see a How-To article about hosting a party, it would be nice if it was not just sponsored by a music production brand.

It would be nice to read something actually informative, or funny, and not just a “sponsored by Spotify”. It is not that I think the brands being advertised are bad or that their services are not good, it is just too fine a line to tread.

If journalists want to stop being known as fibbers, then we need to stop accepting money in return for opinions which are not our own.

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