Links to ads: An ethical dilemma
A couple of colleagues lately have asked me what I think of product links in online stories — where, say, if the iPhone is mentioned in a story an editor links to an online commerce site where you can buy it.
News sites are making deals with retailers to do this, in exchange for a cut of any sales. It’s happening all over, from local news sites like lohud.com to the bigger ones (most recently The Washington Post, which has made a deal with Amazon to link from its stories to products sold there). The Post, according to its ombudsman, spent “months” considering the perils of such an arrangement. Andrew Alexander details those, and the safeguards the paper has put in place, in his most recent Sunday column.
Alexander doesn’t like it, and neither do a couple of ethicists whom he interviews. Their concerns are exactly what you might imagine: inserting ad sales right into news content; having editors themselves do this work; and breaking down “the wall” between editorial and advertising. Will The Post link more to Amazon, knowing that means money? Will it mention more products in its stories, knowing more links could lead to more clicks and more cash? You can read The Post piece yourself to see what you think of that paper’s decision.
Personally, as an editor I’d have a hard time doing this and feeling good about myself. OK, then, what if the process were automated? What if some other person did it (a clerk, for example)? Would I feel better?
It all feels wrong to me.
In the pre-Internet newsroom, I objected to “adjacencies,” where we’d be asked to place “related content” on pages certain advertisers ran (for example, a pharmacy ad on a health topic page). This feels worse. How would you feel if editors started inserting colored “code words” right onto the printed page (like “CVS ad, lower right”).
It is easy to talk ourselves into things when it could mean money. And money means income to pay for more journalists, who produce more good journalism. But do the means justify the ends? Is it worth staying in business if we don’t feel good about what we do? Or if readers don’t trust us? Sounds like a couple of “no brainer” questions, right? But if your most venerable websites are doing it, and many of our core local sites, then it’s beginning to seem like it’s a “no brainer” yes instead of the easy “no” it once was.
lohud.com seems to be taking this to another level. A link shared with us shows the words “safe” and “safety” linking to an ad for the Chevrolet Cruze. Isn’t this a bit strange? Indeed, it demonstrates the classic “slippery slope,” where linking can quickly get out of hand.
(Thanks to Newhouse colleague Bob Lissit for calling our attention to The Post piece and to blog reader Alison Bert, who mentioned what lohud.com is doing with Vibrant Media.)