Editorial: Journalistic integrity for sale — not cheap

In the immortal words of Spiderman’s Uncle Ben (possibly paraphrasing Voltaire): With great power comes great responsibility — a humbling concept for any journalist.

You shouldn’t have to ask if an article that seems informative was crafted with ulterior motives. That’s why many newspapers, including the Martlet, have an integral conflict of interest policy that prevents individuals or groups who are implicated in news stories from unduly influencing the writing of those stories.

But in the turbulent world of dying newspapers, online takeovers and falling ad revenue, even Goliaths of Canadian media can stumble under the pressure to stay afloat. The Globe and Mail, which the Encyclopedia Britannica refers to as “the most prestigious and influential journal in Canada,” has been under fire lately for a series of incidents that put its integrity in question. Columnist Margaret Wente was accused of plagiarism in September and was suspended from CBC Radio’s bi-weekly Q media panel and disciplined by the Globe. Also in September, a Globe freelancer wrote an article promoting her own house for sale, which public editor Sylvia Stead then apologized for printing. But it looks like the Globe’s issues with journalistic integrity aren’t over.

On Oct. 22, in its “Mediacheck” section, online news source The Tyee reported on an advertorial that appeared in the Globe and Mail print edition on Oct. 2. Advertorials are ads that look like articles; they are often seen in media and usually clearly identified as an ad. They also usually have a different look than the rest of the publication. But in this case, as Tyee reporter Jonathan Sas pointed out, the eight-page spread that appeared in the Globe and Mail looked identical to the rest of the paper. The top of the page read “An information feature.” And the title? “The Future of the Oil Sands.”

What appeared to be an eight-page special report on the oil sands was actually eight pages of “custom content” sponsored by Devon Energy and written by Globe freelance writers. This advertorial, which consisted of multiple “articles” that the Globe lent its design and column styles, was nothing more than a blatant, highly biased promotion of Alberta oil sands projects. While the online version of the advertorial clearly showed that the content was sponsored by Devon Energy, the print version contained only a small line (not on the front page of the report) that noted the content had been contributed by an outside firm and a Globe advertising manager. Devon Energy was not mentioned as the force behind the content.

When marketers use advertorials, they are banking on the fact that readers trust the editorial staff and will perceive the ad as being endorsed or even written by the paper. The Globe’s marketing website puts the cost of an eight-page spread like this one at $169 684 — quite a chunk of change. In light of behaviour like this, can we trust the Globe to give us the truly balanced coverage we expect from our biggest national news source? Just how far into the editorial process are advertisers reaching? The reputation of the Globe as a trustworthy Canadian institution is at stake.

The Martlet had the pleasure of a visit from Globe Editor-in-Chief John Stackhouse in 2011, after writer Karolina Karas won a Globe contest for student journalism. We’ll put it to you, Mr. Stackhouse: are you comfortable knowing that the voice of the Globe can be bought?

Is the $169 684 really worth it?

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