The Monopoly On Your Mind, Part 3: Advertisers' Invisible Strings
The media relies heavily on money from advertisers. So, how much sway do these sponsors have over the narratives?
In a recent Twitter survey I conducted, nearly 90% of people rated their trust in mainstream media as either “very low” or “low.” And is it any surprise? Ever-mounting media consolidation has narrowed the perspectives the public is privy to, ownership and funding of these corporations are riddled with conflicts of interest, crucial stories keep suspiciously getting buried, and big tech companies are outright censoring and demonetizing independent outlets trying to break through the noise. The media is supposed to function as a power check — and a means of arming us with vital information for shaping the society we want to live in. It’s never been a more important industry. And it’s never been more at risk. In this series, I’ll tackle each factor threatening the media’s ability to serve our democracy — with input from journalists, media critics and professors, and other experts.
“The media, like anything else, can be bought. Everything, it seems, has its price. Even the ‘free’ press.”
― Lance Morcan
In 2020, while writing for a popular online news platform geared toward millennials, I proposed what I thought was a timely and non-controversial story. As marijuana legalization was spreading to more and more states, lots of my peers were looking to cut back on their drinking — which had gotten out of control during the pandemic — and turning to cannabis as an anxiety-reducing replacement. So, I pitched my editor on an experiential piece: For a few weeks, I’d swap my nightly glass of wine with a popular new celeb-backed cannabis beverage and share the effects. She didn’t go for it, but not because she didn’t find the idea interesting or relevant to our audience. “Unfortunately, our advertisers won’t like it,” she said. “We just can’t do any cannabis stories, period.” Her feedback left me wondering which of our sponsors wouldn’t approve the topic due to conflicting interests. Was it oh-so-wholesome Disney? An alcohol brand that saw cannabis as a threat to business? I’ll never know. But regardless of the specifics, the experience left a sour taste in my mouth. I hadn’t realized until that moment that the advertisers had so much control over what we did and didn’t cover.
As it turns out, research has repeatedly shown this to be a common problem:
In response to a survey I conducted back in April, 50% of journalists said they'd been told to avoid certain topics that might conflict with advertisers' interests.
In a 1992 survey of editors at daily newspapers, a staggering 90% percent reported that advertisers tried to influence stories and applied economic pressure in response to reporting — and 37% of editors had given in to that advertiser pressure.
A 2000 Pew Research and CJR survey found that 30% of journalists admit to purposely avoiding newsworthy stories or "softening the tone" of stories that could adversely affect advertisers.
A 2013 study of U.S. daily newspapers showed that conflicts between the business and journalism sides of these operations are rampant. Advertising directors at chain-owned newspapers and small newspapers were more likely to support compromising editorial integrity in order to please or avoid riling advertisers.
A 2009 study revealed that whether due to overt pressures
or a subconscious desire to please advertisers, publishers tend to give their sponsors special treatment.
A 1992 study examined this potential influence and found dozens of examples where news organizations buried stories out of fear of offending advertisers. Some of them didn't even attempt to deny or hide it. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette had outright told a columnist not to criticize advertisers, and at the time, the managing editor said: “We do not hire opinion writers to trash advertisers ... No newspaper would do that.”
And by the way, this has been going on for decades. When The Daily Iowan began publishing anti-Vietnam war content in 1970-1971, corporate sponsors withdrew a ton of funding, triggering internal pressures to adjust the reporting.
“Just anecdotally, I’ve heard from journalists there’s a sneaking suspicion that sometimes when a corporation funds a news outlet and that news outlet does coverage they don’t like, they have the resources to build a campaign that puts pressure on editors to talk to the journalists,” says Nolan Higdon, a media studies and history lecturer at Merrill College at the University of California, Santa Cruz and co-author of “Let’s Agree to Disagree.” “So, sometimes a journalist is getting flak from their editor that’s actually coming from the sponsor — but the journalist doesn’t know that.”
More than two-thirds (69%) of all U.S. news revenue comes from advertising. The concern is this: if the media is so dependent on advertisers to stay afloat, they may bend to those companies’ wishes when it comes to editorial decisions.
As FAIR puts it: “The most important transaction in the media marketplace … does not involve media companies selling content to audiences, but rather media companies selling audiences to sponsors. This gives corporate sponsors a disproportionate influence over what people get to see or read. Most obviously, they don’t want to support media that regularly criticize their products or discuss corporate wrongdoing. More generally, they would rather support media that puts audiences in a passive, non-critical state of mind-making them easier to sell things to.”
Roberta Baskin is living proof that the news organizations’ relationships with corporate sponsors can, and do, sometimes get in the way of big stories. Her groundbreaking investigative piece about Nike’s Vietnam sweatshops was never aired again after the sportswear company inked a deal with her employer, CBS News.
Baskin’s journalism career speaks for itself: she’s served as the senior Washington correspondent for NOW with Bill Moyers, senior investigative producer for ABC’s 20/20, and chief investigative correspondent for CBS’ 48 Hours. She also maintained the positions of Director of the Investigative Team at WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C., Executive Director for the Center for Public Integrity and the Director of Media Communications for the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Over the years, she won numerous awards for her hard-hitting stories. Her specialty? Exposing corporate corruption. As Baskin puts it: “I just couldn't wait to tell you about a company that's doing a bad thing.”
Over the course of her 35 years in newsrooms, she exposed the NFL’s faulty drug testing policies, a baby food company’s deceptive marketing tactics, cancer-causing agents in beer, unreported adverse reactions to pesticides, a Ford Motor Company scandal that led to massive car recalls, child labor in Pakistan factories making soccer balls for Reebok and Adidas, and hidden toxins in cosmetics, just to name a few investigations. In 2008, she won an Emmy for her corporate greed exposé on a pediatric dental chain that preyed on children to perform unnecessary root canals for profit.
In 1996, Baskin broke a massive story about Nike's labor practices in Vietnam on the CBS News’48 Hours. During her investigations, Baskin had discovered that women were being forced to kneel on the ground with their hands in the air for poor sewing, and having their mouths taped shut for talking on the assembly line, among other forms of mistreatment.
“For me, it was really a story about the exploitation of these women, who were getting less than $40 a month for a six-day workweek — a violation, even in Vietnam, of their minimum wage,” Baskin told me in an interview. “And the physical abuse they were suffering. And then exploitation of the Americans who were paying $135 for these shoes.”
The report struck a chord with Americans, triggering nationwide protests and boycotts. Nike’s stock even went down. But when it came time to re-air Baskin’s investigation, as was customary with expensive stories, she was told it had been taken off the schedule by the president of CBS News. Why? Because Nike had struck a deal with CBS News to sponsor their coverage of the upcoming Nagano Winter Olympics. All of Baskin’s attempts to do a follow-up report on Nike’s labor practices were blocked. Even after an Ernst & Young report that leaked to Baskin and The New York Times corroborated everything she had found — plus some additional disturbing details about the factory conditions — she was repeatedly told to move on. The resistance was disheartening — after all, Baskin says, “corporate misconduct stories are what I was hired to do.”
But it all came into focus for Baskin on the night before the opening of the Winter Olympics. While watching 48 Hours, she spotted four of her colleagues sporting CBS jackets with prominent Nike logos. Apparently, part of that deal entailed outfitting roughly 1,500 CBS employees in head-to-toe Nike gear, including ski pants, vests, jackets, parkas, coats, gloves, boots, hats, headbands, turtlenecks, scarves, and more. Repping the brand wasn’t exactly optional, either: CBS correspondents were told that whenever they appeared on-air, they had to wear a Nike jacket.
Outraged, Baskin stayed up all night writing a two-page memo to the president and executive producers at CBS.
“I told them it was a violation of CBS News policy — and the first time a network turned its correspondents into billboards for a sponsor,” she told me. “How could the public trust us covering these stories? The jackets were popping up everywhere. 60 Minutes. CBS Morning News. CBS Evening News. 48 Hours. PrimeTime Live. They were swooshed from head to toe. And it was a more complex arrangement than I had even realized — because all of their sizes had to be known.”
In response, then CBS president Andrew Heyward put out a press release saying that Baskin’s memo was “a violation of professional etiquette.” He insisted that the decision not to re-run Baskin’s story had “nothing to do with Nike’s relationship with CBS.” “There is no connection whatsoever — none — between Nike's sponsorship of the Olympic Games or any other CBS program it might sponsor and CBS News coverage of the Nike story,” he said at the time.
After Baskin was demoted following the memo, she decided to resign before her contract ended, and went across the street to work for ABC. Producers often wrote to her and expressed reluctance to pursue a particular story they were interested in — for example, on AOL parental controls — because CBS had a relationship with the company being covered. According to Higdon, this kind of self-censorship is not uncommon.
“You don’t necessarily need to have some representative from the corporation looking at your draft and using a black marker to draw lines through it,” explains Higdon. “Journalists know what advertisers fund their news outlets — so the question usually runs through their minds: Is it worth it to publish this story? To bite the hand that feeds them? And that in itself has a chilling effect.”
Baskin is not the only one to experience this kind of resistance. In 2015, chief political commentator Peter Oborne resigned from the Telegraph, accusing his editors of burying stories merely because they made advertisers (HSBC Bank and Tesco supermarkets) look bad. Oborne wrote that from 2013 onwards, "stories critical of HSBC were discouraged," because of how valuable the account was — in fact, one exec told him that it was "the advertiser you literally cannot afford to offend."
When BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith deleted an article criticizing a Dove Personal Care ad in 2015, the move swiftly garnered backlash. Many questioned whether Smith took it down because Dove was one of BuzzFeed’s corporate sponsors. Smith eventually republished the post and apologized for his mistake, and in his email to BuzzFeed staff, insisted that he did not remove the article due to advertiser pressure. But then again, this was not the first time that Smith had hastily deleted an article that shed a negative light on a sponsor. That same year, a piece titled “Why Monopoly Is The Worst Game In The World, And What You Should Play Instead,” was taken down. Hasbro, the maker of Monopoly, was another one of BuzzFeed’s advertisers at the time.
Jeff Cohen, media critic and founder of FAIR and RootsAction, is another journalist who knows firsthand how powerful advertisers’ influence can be. Cohen frequently appeared in on-air debates in the months and weeks leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
“When I was being tested for a co-hosting job on CNN's Crossfire, I was told of management’s concern that I would be critical of the nightly sponsor of the program,” Cohen told me in an interview.
Opponents of the war, like Cohen, were chronically underrepresented in the media. In fact, while Cohen was working as a senior producer of The Phil Donahue Show on MSNBC, he had to book two pro-war guests for every one anti-war guest.
“The defense industry funds the media,” explains Higdon. “For them, the more you can ramp up war, the more justification you can have in the next budget for spending on the military. So, if I’m an anti-war voice who comes onto the floor of Congress and says ‘we need to put food on people’s tables and make sure they have a roof over their heads before we spend money on the military budget,’ they’ll have a ton of senators pushing back, saying ‘Did you see what just happened in Ukraine? We need to be prepared, we need to protect the American people.’ This is why the defense industry likes to play up these events.”
If you’ve ever spotted advertisements for major military defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Boeing on CNN, NBC, or Fox News, you may have wondered why a company would promote products to consumers that they obviously don’t have access to. The average citizen can’t go out and buy fighter jets and missiles at a local retailer, after all. But that doesn’t matter, because that’s not the objective: it’s to win viewers’ support in the push for the next war. And they accomplish that by pushing messaging that encourages news watchers to associate these weapons makers with freedom, safety, innovation, and a better future.
Lockheed Martin had long been a sponsor of Politico’s Morning Defense newsletter when the news site suddenly began scrubbing its archives of any reference to the company. People quickly took notice — especially because at the same time that Politico was eagerly erasing all traces of this relationship with the largest defense contractor in the world, the news outlet published an unabashed puff piece about the company. In it, the author describes her visit to Lockheed Martin’s super secretive Skunk Works research and development facility — and to her credit, she admits that companies like Lockheed plan these types of events “to kick up support for more Pentagon business amid flat defense budgets.” If you weren’t deliberately looking for it, it would be very easy to miss the discreetly placed “sponsored content” disclaimer in the lower-left corner.
Raytheon, the third-largest defense contractor in the world, has placed sponsored content in The Washington Post. One particular article presents the company’s latest technologies and innovations as tools to support “our country’s efforts to protect and defend what’s most important.”
“The links between the media and the military-industrial complex (MIC) have only become stronger, more frequent, and more financially lucrative over time,” writes Vassar College political science scholar Helen Johnson in a research report. “When the news media wields such power over our political landscape and their sponsors influence the news, the advertisers in major news outlets, in turn, influence the discourse surrounding issues that can be of major political importance.”
Another industry that’s been increasingly leveraging the power of native ads is Big Oil. Recently, The New York Times's T Brand Studio produced an ad campaign for Chevron asking consumers to test their knowledge of “clean energy” via an interactive quiz. Chevron is a big investor in natural gas, so, naturally, the questions and answers overplay the benefits while underplaying the risks. In fact, “natural gas” is marked as the correct answer to the question “What was the biggest factor in keeping U.S. emissions down for the past decade?” Meanwhile, the latest research shows that fracked natural gas is more destructive to the climate than coal.
“This is not in line with the campaign they are putting out … when they will turn around with another hand and take money from an advertiser to run an ad about fracking not being bad,” Tracy Doyle, a former Times creative director, told Columbia Journalism Review (CJR). “We know that this is not the truth. This is what happens when you have glorified salespeople running The New York Times — their take-money-from-anyone mindset ultimately jeopardizes the journalistic integrity of the newspaper.”
Politico, VOX, and The Washington Post are just a few of the other top news organizations that have raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars from Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and the American Petroleum Institute to create these fossil fuel-friendly ads.
Usually, these campaigns are cleverly timed. For instance, Gizmodo found that 100% of Politico’s Morning Energy newsletters, 63% of Punchbowl newsletters, and 62% of Axios Generate newsletters were sponsored by fossil fuel interests from October 1-22, 2021 — not-so-coincidentally, the weeks leading up to a congressional hearing on whether those Big Oil companies’ ad campaigns were misleading the public about climate change. Gizmodo discovered that many of these newsletters were packed with misinformation, greenwashing, and intentionally vague promises.
When asked how the WaPo is able to prevent advertisers from influencing the reporting, the company’s director of communications, Shani George, told The Nation that all sponsored content contains the name of the advertiser and is clearly labeled as advertising. She also insisted the Post newsroom is not involved in the content creation (that’s done by a separate dedicated team). The New York Times’ paid posts include a similar disclaimer in fine print at the bottom. But when The Washington Post or The New York Times is reporting on climate change, how can readers trust that they aren’t getting fossil fuel propaganda? And how are readers supposed to rectify a news article that contradicts an advertisement in the same publication?
Responsible Statecraft asked Politico about the sponsorship from Lockheed, and a spokesperson said: “There is a strong firewall between Politico’s newsroom and business teams … Advertisements are plainly visible and demarcated in our newsletters and across our platforms.”
“Whatever firewall may have once existed between advertising and news content has largely collapsed in recent years as news organizations chase after ever-diminishing revenues and blend advertising with their reporting,” says Victor Pickard, a media studies scholar, UPenn professor, and author of “Democracy Without Journalism?”. “These practices are often referred to as ‘native advertising’ and ‘sponsored content.’ The entire phenomenon of clickbait essentially is a symptom of these values where the news is really just serving as bait to capture people's attention and information to then sell to advertisers.”
In an interview with CJR, a number of salespeople from legacy news publishers admitted there were always "avenues for advertisers to collaborate with the newsroom." As in, they often looped popular journalists into sales meetings. So much for that firewall.
Sponsored content is the holy grail for advertisers: it allows them to borrow all the prestige, purported objectivity, and trustworthiness of news, while still ever so subtly pushing their agenda. Very often, these native ads don’t focus specifically on the brand’s products or services, and sometimes they don’t even mention them. Add in catchy SEO-optimized headlines, polished storytelling, and formatting intended to blend in seamlessly with the rest of the conventional reporting, and it can be very difficult to tell the difference. That means if you aren’t paying close attention, you may just be tricked into thinking that these paid posts are real news. And they can fool even the most discerning of readers because in many cases, the writers of this branded content used to be journalists. For example, editors at The New York Times’ rapidly growing T Brand Studio, which launched in 2014, all have “journalism roots.”
Even if the editorial staff isn’t involved in the creation of these posts whatsoever, publishing content that’s antithetical to the organization’s mission and values can undermine the newsroom’s credibility. Not to mention, a 2017 MediaRadar study, which reviewed more than 12,000 pieces of native content across a variety of news sites, found that 37% of these ads don’t comply with the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) guidelines.
Research has repeatedly shown that this approach is deceptive:
A 2016 study in American Behavioral Scientist revealed that many readers can’t always recognize native advertisements, even with disclosures present. When there’s a prominent company name to confirm that a post is sponsored, 15% of readers misinterpreted that logo as a stand-alone advertisement and failed to recognize that the article in itself is an ad. A vast majority of people who viewed native ads believed they had seen no advertisements whatsoever.
In a Stanford History Education Group study conducted between 2015-2016, researchers presented high school students with screenshots of two different articles on global climate change: one was a traditional news story and the other was a sponsored post funded by an oil company. Despite the fact that the latter was labeled as sponsored content with the company’s logo, nearly 70% said the sponsored content seemed more reliable mainly because it contained a pie chart (even though there was no evidence that the data was accurate). Only 15% of students said they thought the news article was the more trustworthy source.
But these ads are lucrative. Hence why a number of media companies, including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Politico, The Atlantic, CNN, Vice, The Guardian, and Vox, have founded their own separate in-house “content studios” to produce native advertising for corporate sponsors. In some cases, “product marketing” teams serve as intermediaries between the newsroom and these studios to guide the process, and in others, journalists may write for both the content studio and the newsroom.
In an article about his experience as a sponsored content writer for The Atlantic, freelance journalist Jacob Silverman noted that while the pay for this kind of work is appealing, it can create some awkward conundrums for a reporter.
“I was a month away from the release of my first book, a critical treatment of the big tech companies and the world they’ve made for us, and here I was sweating over an assignment glorifying some of those same companies,” Silverman wrote. “The notion that a publication could sell access to its editorial style without also changing the terms of journalistic access itself is laughable.”
Sometimes, the messaging in these sponsored posts can directly conflict with the rest of the editorial coverage on a particular topic, creating a pretty confusing experience for regular readers. For instance, The Guardian has published articles in partnership with big oil companies while also running a campaign to divest from them. A since-deleted puff piece told the story of a working mom — a Shell engineer, who praised the company’s flexible policies for allowing her to balance work and home life.
Pharma is one industry that’s been bankrolling the news in a big way — and at no time was this more apparent than during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, pharma companies accounted for a whopping 75% of the total U.S. TV ad spend in 2020. Between 2012 and 2018, spending on drug commercials increased by 62%.
According to a 2018 report in the peer-reviewed Journal of General Internal Medicine, the average TV viewer in the U.S. watches as many as nine drug advertisements per day, and around 16 hours of drug ads per year — significantly more time than they spend with their primary care physician.
These days, you can’t watch TV for an hour without being exposed to at least one pharmaceutical commercial — at least in America and New Zealand. Every other country in the world has banned the direct marketing of prescription drugs. Hence why, when Brits watched Meaghan Markle’s 2021 Oprah interview, they were stunned and horrified by the volume of pharmaceutical commercials during breaks. “American advertising makes me feel like I’m in a post-apocalyptic world,” wrote one Twitter user. “American medical ads are real dystopian shit, how you’re telling me I might die,” wrote another.
At one point in time, it was illegal for pharma to advertise prescription medications directly to consumers — up until 1985, the FDA only allowed these companies to promote those products to doctors and pharmacists. In the mid-’90s, the government relaxed these regulations even further, enabling broadcast ads. In 2020, as the pandemic kicked into full swing, pharma’s digital ad spending surged by 43%, reaching a total of $6.58 billion that year.
A 2021 study found that seven out of the 10 drug manufacturers examined spent more on marketing and selling in 2020 than they did on research and development. For example, Johnson & Johnson spent $22 billion on sales and marketing during the first year of the pandemic, which is nearly twice what the company spent on research and development ($12 billion).
The vast majority of these ads appear on TV — according to Nielsen, at a rate of 80 ads per hour of programming. And they’re effective, too:
Two-thirds of adults take action after seeing an ad for a drug or medical device, and about 40% make an appointment with their doctor. What’s particularly alarming, though, is that studies have shown direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical ads sometimes misinform viewers by over-emphasizing the benefits of a product while downplaying the risks. Not only that, but these ads can lead to the over-prescribing of medications — in one study, patients who requested drugs from their doctors after seeing ads for them were far more likely to get prescriptions than those who didn't make those requests.
Pfizer is known to be one of the top industry spenders on ads — especially sponsored content, which appears in a range of top news publications from The Washington Post to Politico and Bloomberg. Starting in 1957, The New York Times worked very closely with Pfizer, including a supplement in the Sunday paper with the pharmaceutical company’s annual financial report. A precursor to today’s native advertising, the report was intended to blend in with the rest of the editorial reporting. Soon, these same Pfizer reports appeared in Sunday issues of The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune.
Today, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Sanofi, and Novartis are a few of the top spenders when it comes to primetime television. Gilead Sciences, Merck, and GlaxoSmithKline are just a few of the other pharmaceutical companies shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars for primetime advertising. And advertising on these networks during the news hour is a smart strategy: A 2020 study revealed that consumers trust brands more when they run adjacent to news, especially breaking news. This "news trust halo," as researchers call it, also makes viewers more likely to visit the brand's website, pay more attention to that brand, consider trying one of the brand's products, and recommend the brand to others.
As for print media, a 2021 Johnson & Johnson ad about its vaccine development efforts ran on a number of lifestyle and health sites including Good Housekeeping, Prevention, Country Living, and Delish. The ad generated 31.9 million impressions in just a little over a month. Moderna, meanwhile, has purchased considerable ad space in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal as well.
“When you have Pfizer funding news outlets that are talking about the vaccine — I’m not necessarily saying those outlets are outright lying, but there’s a very clear conflict of interest there,” says Higdon.
The concern? Whether or not news outlets that are pulling in millions from these pharmaceutical giants can be relied on for any critical coverage of their products. Not to mention, what many don’t realize is that the FDA does not oversee any advertising for over-the-counter drugs, and federal law bans requiring pharma companies to submit their ads for FDA review and approval before airing them. Maybe that’s why a 2014 review in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, which analyzed 168 drug ads, found that 57% of claims in these ads were potentially misleading and 10% were entirely false.
The question is: if pharmaceutical companies aren’t fully honest and transparent in how they portray their drugs in advertisements, what’s to say those firms aren’t using their financial clout to squash negative news reports about their products?
Pharma execs know that consumer trust in their industry is abysmally low. One factor that deters people from buying their medications is the laundry list of potential side effects rattled off at warp speed toward the end of every ad. So, they found a sneaky way around that: “unbranded” ads. Unsurprisingly, pharma spending on these ads has been ramping up in recent years. When no specific drug is mentioned by name within an ad, the company is not required to provide a list of risks, side effects, and contraindications. Rather than being tied to one specific drug, these unbranded ads are usually designed to spread awareness about a disease or medical condition. Unbranded content helps to build trust with consumers because it feels less like a sales push, and more like the company is merely providing vital information. In an interview with StatNews, epidemiologist Ameet Sarpatwari expressed concerns that consumers may not be aware that this info is coming from a company with a profit-driven motive.
For example, Pfizer’s recent commercial for COVID-fighting pills encourages viewers to “ask your healthcare provider if a new oral treatment could be right for you.” While the ad doesn’t mention Pfizer’s new oral treatment Paxlovid (which still doesn’t have FDA approval yet), the drugmaker includes a link back to its COVID-19 website at the end of the spot. The commercial, for which Pfizer spent $2.8 million, aired nearly 270 times in just 10 days.
Knowing full well that consumers are automatically skeptical of information when they know they’re being sold to, companies have been getting creative with their advertising efforts, experimenting with less overt approaches. For example, Moderna paid for Jimmy Kimmel’s skit about COVID-19 vaccines, in which the late-night TV host plays a doctor answering questions about mRNA science. Beyond sponsoring news segments on CBS, ABC, CNN, and NBC, Pfizer has also paid for tweets posted by some of these news outlets.
In 2017, The Boston Globe’s brand lab introduced a new content campaign sponsored by Pfizer: “Dear Scientist.” In the first installment, Pfizer’s senior director of neuroscience research reads a letter from a woman whose mother had Parkinson’s disease — one might assume, to demonstrate that scientists are compassionate beings driven by the mission to save and change lives. (It’s worth noting that at the time, Pfizer had just finished Phase II trials for a new Parkinson’s drug — a medication which later resulted in a class-action lawsuit when patients complained of developing addictions after taking it.) The explicit goals of these posts, according to the BG Brand Lab’s website, are to “encourage brand loyalty” and “communicate a brand’s ideals without using hard sells or explicit messaging.” The question is, would the average Globe reader be able to discern the difference between a sponsored “Dear Scientist” post and a standard feature? I sent the piece to 15 contacts and only two of them noticed the disclaimer at the bottom.
In a 1990 Senate hearing, Ted Kennedy expressed concerns about the rise of pharma-sponsored health segments disguised as real news.
“This is a blatant violation of accepted journalistic tenets,” said Kennedy at the time. “Your viewers will undoubtedly be deceived into believing this content is a product of the normal newsgathering process, which is supposed to be objective … If you use this content, you not only will be doing a disservice to your viewers, but you will be actively participating in the purveying of propaganda and, more seriously, the erosion of journalistic standards that distinguish a free and open democracy. The line between editorial content and advertising should be clear and bright. As you blur this line with products such as this, you will undermine your credibility as well as that of American journalism in general.”
The bottom line is, with so many factors at play, it’s nearly impossible to measure how much advertisers’ money impacts reporting. Baskin acknowledges that not all media executives will bend to corporations — ultimately, she says it depends on the personalities of the people you’re working with.
“Some news directors have the stomach for this kind of reporting and some don’t,” she told me. “It all comes down to the courage, or lack thereof, of the managers.”
What is clear is that an over-reliance on advertising revenue can sometimes put news outlets in a chokehold when covering certain topics.
“Why is there one narrative on COVID? Because of big pharma,” says Mickey Huff, director of Project Censored, president of the Media Freedom Foundation, and co-author of “United States of Distraction.” “Why is there one narrative on fossil fuel? Because of the oil industry. Do the math, right? Even the greenwashing of Tesla and electric cars — if you do any research at all on it you realize how much coal and fossil fuel resource is necessary to mine for things like lithium.”
Remember: when it comes to big, complex events like war, climate change, political campaigns, and pandemics, there are always companies that stand to gain or lose something depending on how they’re reported. So, as media companies continue depending largely on advertisers’ money, and the lines between advertising and news keep getting blurrier, it’s never been more important to pay attention to which companies are sponsoring your go-to outlets. These days, it’s all too easy to mistake a sales push for a legitimate report. But if you can tell the difference, you’re one step closer to sussing out the truth.