Endorsement -- the word is not one we at SNEWSÂ® had given much thought to outside of the world of athletes and sponsorships. Not much thought, that is, until this week. A letter on Backpacker magazine letterhead, signed by publisher John Viehman, and sent to retailers subsequently found its way onto our desk and hurled us headfirst into a story dealing with the ethics of publishing and journalism. (click here to read the news story).
Basically, the Backpacker letter was intended as a value-added promotion for one of its advertisers but raised eyebrows because of its perceived editorial endorsement.
The more we dug into the issue, the more we became troubled by an apparently increased blurring of the lines between advertising and editorial throughout the media world. We discovered that Backpacker is not alone in this practice: Outdoor Retailer magazine it seems also sends out publisher letters to retailers on behalf of its advertisers as a value-added enhancement. In addition, several manufacturers who were not involved in this letter came forward and told SNEWS they too had participated in the past in similar letter campaigns by publishers at other magazines.
Was the wall between advertising and editorial -- once considered sacred -- now crumbling beneath the weight of hard competition for advertising dollars?
According to Guidelines for Editors and Publishers by the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) -- click on http://asme.magazine.org/guidelines/index.html -- trust between a magazine and a reader can be broken either by perception or reality. "If, for example, a reader believes that an article was created or altered to satisfy an advertiser or special interest group, that reader is likely to discount the content of the article, distrust the publication, and disregard the renewal notice."
If we use those guidelines as a litmus test, it is our view that any letter on magazine letterhead that carries the signature of the publisher or an editor of that magazine, and that encourages a reader to look more closely at or otherwise further research an advertiser is crossing the sacred yet decidedly fuzzy line between advertising and editorial.
There are other implied endorsements that we as journalists, editors, and publishers make almost daily that are harder to define, and even harder to police or control if looking through glasses that see only black and white.
For example, are we as journalists endorsing products and companies just by choosing to carry Brand A's pack, wear Brand B's shirts, walk in Brand C's shoes, or use Brand D's watches? As we pondered this question, we realized that, yes, all of us in the media may actually be engaging in endorsements this way every day and especially at shows and trade events. Manufacturers definitely notice what we choose to wear, as do consumers. If the SNEWS team wears one brand at a trade show, is that an endorsement? Certainly it could be viewed that way -- or maybe it's only because we forgot to do our laundry.
Then there are the choices made for stories: By choosing to review or not review a product, are we endorsing it, or intentionally not endorsing it based on our own biases and feelings about the company or any of its representatives? If we write about one company more than another, are we favoring that company? Certainly it could seem that way. No doubt we at SNEWSÂ® have been guilty of favoritism on more than one occasion. Why? Maybe because Brand A has a PR person we like and who just does a great job selling a news angle and getting the information to us. If we don't write about a company, are we biased against it? Could be. Or could it be that Brand B's PR efforts are abysmal, and its representatives can't sell their story's way out of a paper bag?
Many magazines have ethics policies -- and Backpacker has one of the most stringent we've seen in the magazine world -- that govern, among other things, the acceptance of gifts, and the wearing or displaying of logos. Unfortunately, the reality of the demands of product testing and the desire to remain neutral often run counter to one another. It is impossible, for example, to test gear and to remove all the logos -- especially when a manufacturer has hopes of seeing the product returned. It is equally impossible for writers and magazines to pay for all the gear they receive in the course of product testing, researching for a specific story, or reviewing gear to stay up-to-date
Advertisers are of course essential to most publishing ventures. Beyond the financial support provided, advertisers and their associated marketing and PR staff can offer great assist to editors and publishers, and can sometimes serve to keep editorial staff alert to new or innovative products or programs, as well as issues and companies. We recognize that publishing is a competitive business. But we also think everybody should realize that it is a business which will go bad for both sides if a magazine's readers begin to doubt the honesty of editorial content.
Our contemplation as a part of this story brings us to this advice for manufacturers who are advertisers:
- Think hard on the possible consequences or perceived message before accepting or pushing for value-added enhancements to your advertising contract.
- Think even harder before canceling or threatening to cancel or cut back your advertising simply because you do not agree with a particular viewpoint or article.
The bottom line rests on integrity. Because the media, including SNEWSÂ®, wields so much implied power that can influence the success or failure of a product or company, we must hold ourselves accountable to a higher standard of business operation. We must constantly question whether we are covering the stories that need to be covered in the way they need to be covered without regard to personal bias, subscriptions and advertising. We must be vigilant about this standard, and we must constantly hold as sacred the dividing line between editorial and advertising.