SPJ Ethics Committee criticizes L.A. Times’ fake news story

Several days ago, I posted a few lines of quick reaction to the L.A. Times’ fake news story on the front page. Together, the SPJ Ethics Committee has come up with a more detailed reaction.

SPJ criticizes fake news story on L.A. Times’ front page

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee has concluded that a Los Angeles Times front-page ad blurred the lines between news and advertising. The front-page ad was designed to look like a news story.

The committee cited the SPJ Code of Ethics, which urges journalists to “distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.”

The April 9 ad, promoting the premiere of NBC’s drama “Southland, “ was positioned in the lower left corner of the Los Angeles Times’ front page. While the NBC ad was in a different typeface and the NBC peacock logo and the label “advertisement” ran above the headline – distinguishing marks to be sure – the ad was laid out like a news story. TVweek.com called it a “faux story.”

“Integrity must anchor our journalism,” said Andy Schotz, the Ethics Committee’s chairman. “We serve our readers, listeners and viewers. There’s no reason to trick or confuse them with fake news, not even for money.”

A number of newspapers have embraced front-page ads in the past few years, a practice resurrected from the 19th century. The practice itself is not unethical. As long as advertising dollars do not influence editorial content or front-page news judgment, an ad on the front page of the newspaper is no more troublesome than an ad on page 6 or the back page.

However, the L.A. Times’ ad was a definite attempt to grab NBC’s money and readers’ attention – without making it crystal clear the story was not news.

The L.A. Times acknowledged as much in this statement:

“The delivery of news and information is a rapidly changing business, and the Los Angeles Times is continuously testing innovative approaches. That includes creating unique marketing opportunities for our advertising partners, and today’s NBC ‘Southland’ ad was designed to stretch traditional boundaries.”

The L.A. Times followed that up with a four-page movie advertisement in a Sunday section that The New York Times said was laid out like a news section. NBC and Paramount Pictures both said The L.A. Times brought the ad ideas to them.

The journalists responsible for the news content of the L.A. Times protested the NBC ad, according to Reuters, which reported 100 employees signed a petition protesting the ad the day before it ran.

“The NBC ad may have provided some quick cash, but it has caused incalculable damage to this institution,” the petition said. “This action violates a 128-year pact with our readers that the front page is reserved for the most meaningful stories of the day. Placing a fake news article on A-1 makes a mockery of our integrity and journalistic standards.”

Geneva Overholser, director of the school of journalism at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and a respected media critic, told The New York Times she agreed with the ad’s critics. “You dress an ad up to look like editorial content precisely because you think it will make it more valuable,” Overholser said. “Fundamentally, that’s an act of deception.”

These are perilous times for the journalism industry as publishers everywhere search for a business model that will help keep the public informed and keep the governments accountable for their decisions, the Ethics Committee said.

As part of the effort to survive and create new revenue, newspapers are experimenting and rightly so. But those experiments must not cross the ethical divide and blur the lines between news content and advertisements, as the L.A. Times has done.

SPJ calls on newspaper publishers to remember their ethical responsibilities to readers while experimenting with ways to increase advertising revenue. The L.A. Times’ approach is wrong and it undermines the integrity of the work produced by the journalists who work there.

“It will be a hollow victory if the Los Angeles Times manages to survive economically only by selling out the integrity of the newspaper,” Schotz said.

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