Project: Writing for the Web Discussion
in WEEK THREE: BRAND JOURNALISM
By: Kambiz Tavana
On surface, one might be quick to judge about either merits or hazards of native advertising, but going through all the roots and mechanism makes it hard to jump on a conclusion. Like any other argument, we cannot make a good vision unless we have all the facts and data and the roots of the movement.
Native advertising or brand journalism might be new but has some edges over the traditional sense of news journalism. Historically, journalism defined by core principal rules. As defined by for example Society of professional journalism, these principles are: Seek Truth and Report It, Minimize Harm, Act Independently, Be Accountable and Transparent. More or less these rules are the same in any media guideline you see. From Reuters news guide handbook to Associated Press or some local newspapers no one heard the name before. Some people in the news organizations refer to their guide as the “Bible” meaning these are the rules to follow no matter what. Lets first see how the traditional media went ahead with its guidelines and market and economy model and then we can better understand descend of native advertising.
In a philosophical point of view, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard went through essence of journalism and their role in society and structure of power in the political system. He argued in his book “For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign” and in a whole chapter, that media is not what we think it is. It consists of content and delivery and none of these two elements can be defined as “independent”. In his point ofview these two elements are serving some purpose and insurface or just in outfit they might look necessary for a real justice and egalitarian society but in truth, these are means to some kind of influence; either money or power.
Basically he argues that we might be trapped in some words and terms like accuracy and transparency but in the end, these are just illusions. If we want to directly put it into action and in our current time, look at the very familiar issue like food. It is not very complicated, everyone has an understanding about it and there are more than enough information and fact-based researches on what is good for you and what is bad for your body. You know basically what might harm your body; you absolutely know where the food is coming from and how it is delivered. Strangely, you do not see any kind of deep and unified reporting on food industry. This matter is beyond left and right or Fox News versus New York Times. The horrible hazards of fast food and the huge amount of sugar are absolute fact now, but still you can see full advertising of all fast foods and sugary products in wide range of media – TV, Radio, Newspapers, Website, News agencies. If the mandate and rule of media is to be truthful to the audience or readers, should not they say these substances causes us death, destruction, disease and heavy cost in medical care and medical aid.
On the other hand, you see that all of these medias are happy with the fact. What they would refer to is the line between content and advertising. They call it separation of church and state, meaning that newsroom works based on its rules for providing content and the advertising is the motor for revenue and income. They deliver both in a final product, but the advertising has no “authority over content”. As it is given in the example of fast food or sugary substances, you know this is just a façade. If we go back to biblical literature, it is like Pontius Pilate washed his hands in a sign to say I am not part of this plan and you can go ahead with your plan. He gave the green light in the mythical story of biblical literature and gave the green light for the crucifixion of Jesus.
This has been gone for a long time and newsrooms were so comfortable with it and then never saw any change would come. With arrival of Internet to the market, everything changed. As James Gleick pointed out in one if his presentations in Big Think website, we still far away to see the real impact of digital world. Going back in time, when telegram was invented, for the first time in history societies and communities either large or small were not isolated any more. They could know what is happening beyond their borders and this had huge affect on human society. A big positive one is rise and creation of encyclopedia. The invention of telegram made men to think about gathering all the information that had in hand.
Internet and its current offspring like social media is just a beginning and it might take a while to see what changes really will take place upon human society. But for now, the traditional media are facing the reality that their economic system was broken for a long time but they since there was no alternative, they thought everything would be in place forever.
Smart and flexible to change
One of the most characteristics of the new age of media and social media platform is that they are extremely smart and very open to any flexibility and change. While in traditional media any change was very hard to implement, the new age media just looks at the numbers and gets creative on how to reach market. Even they are smart enough to know that names and labels like Brand Promotion could harm their image so for getting credibility in the eyes of audience, they came up with fancy new names like Native Advertising or Brand Journalism. For a simple costumer, the “Journalism” tag is enough to assure them something really is going on and they are not subject of some market scam. For ordinary costumers this was the case all along: there were tabloids and yellow press for entertainment and gossip and there were credible news sources to see what is really going on in their society and culture and politics.
In a broader sense, there has been a direct line dividing Public Relation and News Media. Public relation is based on some interests (objectives) and their mandate in convincing. A PR firm or person or representative just makes sure everything is set according to keeping the best image of the brand or firm in the eye of the people. A PR person or firm just convinces the audience to be their “valued costumer” and not an “informed member” of the society. In PR business, there is no critical thinking and imperial research, it is all about best way to convey the message and the message is just trust our product and us. Miniseries produced by BMW was a good example for that.
So philosophically, the accurate and balance media was an illusion but PR is much more real and aggressive in its course. While mainstream media embraces more entertainment style delivery to reach audience and therefore still relying on ad revenue, the PR is totally on different course. There was a time that PR needed a delivery medium or tool, but now with this new technology there is no need to rely on old traditional media and the best way is to masquerade as real news and present the content. To many professional and media experts surprise, big names in news business embraced this approach since they did not want to lose the revenue and had no other way to have any revenue for their publication. Times, New York Times, Forbes were quick to jump. Still, native advertising finds its own new way of approach.Websites like Mashable, The Verge, Buzz Feed are coming with new ways and soon they might leave traditional journalism far behind. Their new media outlets are cherry picking from world of journalism and they make it sounds like a credible source.Lets put it this way. This is the fact in numbers that porn sites and publications are number one in rating. No other industry in media and outreach could compete with them.
Because of that broken system of economy in old news journalism, now the media business tries hard to find a way to be relevant, news worthy and also producing revenue. While companies like Facebook trade on personal data collection of users and targeting them with ads, there is no way for other companies in news and media to find a best way for advertising. Recently we see more approach like MTV style of news to keep it not only entertaining and a bit graphic and juicy, but also embracing native advertising fully and presenting it as a credible news story. VICE is one of these examples and the brought adrenaline rush to current news, they are not shy about sex and porn reporting and they totally dedicated in native advertising.
Native advertising has nothing to do with journalism. It is a very smart approach to mesmerize consumers and hook them to product in any way possible. Some times even presenting a fully fact based report but of course the objectivity is missing and the story is not balanced. For future informed citizen, the best way to be learn how to pick the news from different sources, how not to be mislead and how be suspicious about any kind of native advertising.
This is not just about criticism of the native advertising or newsrooms or mass media companies. It is a health issue for society. There was a time we – humans – had no sense in regulations and we just went with the flow. We were open in consumption if alcohol or tobacco but then we found out about the hazards and regulations came in. For subjective issues like common misconception or propaganda or advertising, we still cannot present the measurement and facts and hazards to the public so they cannot see what is happening. If the citizens are informed about these issues, then we might be able to see some good regulations in the future to save public and society and communities from being mislead or ill informed or misinformed. But for now, this slippery slope goes on and soon might take over the whole media industry.
To conclude, just think about this one example: NBC or MSNBC is a huge name in US media and General Electric funds it. In all these years, there has been no real investigative and documentary report in NBC about actions of GE and their money circulations and businesses. Now consider every name in the market has it’s own NBC but with less cost and more outreach. Google can rely on just The Verge or Mashable website to market them in the name of “News Report” and get more attention and focus from target audience better than any costly advertising or native advertising in NY Times or Bloomberg. What do we miss in this sphere of native advertising and might likely never see again? Balance and other side of story, or basically we will never know the whole story which means realities will be camouflaged and very hard to get.