The end of truth in journalism?

When it comes to interplay between politics and journalism, the debate is vigorous. In the past few weeks Sharri Markson, media editor for The Australian, published a scathing ‘expose’ on journalism students ‘being taught to be biased against the Murdoch press’. Apparently, students were being told those publications had a bias. While I think such headlines as ‘Get this mob out’ (under the face of Kevin Rudd) might make Markson’s piece less ‘expose’ and more ‘moot point’, the ‘leftie press’ responded suitably and vigorously – including this well written piece by a soon-to-be journalism graduate, asserting that they are still taught as they should be, to examine things critically and fairly

It’s all heartwarming stuff, but it’s also naïve. If there ever was such a thing as journalistic integrity, for as long as advertising has been in existence, its dollars have undoubtedly had a sway on editorial policy.

Any vestiges of well-meaning integrity that may remain are slowly being obliterated by commercial deals far higher up the chain. Take, for example, the latest deal between Leo Burnett and the Huffington post.  It’s worth taking a moment to read this quote from Mark Renshaw, chief innovation officer at Leo Burnett North America: “Brands have a prime opportunity to drive cultural conversations as opposed to following them. We can lead a new conversation or create a unique point of view, and sustain it with culturally evocative content. And we can do it in a space where people participate at will.”

Should the agency have done the deal? Absolutely! And no ethical line has been crossed yet. But it remains to be seen how this idea is activated. The HuffPost has won the hearts and minds of its readers by being an independent voice. If people fail to notice they’re having ‘a new conversation’ with a brand, rather than the HuffPost community, the lines of truth and intent become blurred very quickly.

YouTube has just done a deal with Group M giving the Media Buying agency a ‘first mover advantage’. While the specifics aren’t entirely clear, there’s certainly some indication that Group M clients will get priority access to at least some of the YouTube audience. And while that isn’t a problem at the moment, it could mean that, taken to extremes, Group M decides what products YouTube viewers see. Like the Leo Burnett deal, it’s a great strategy if the price is right. But it wouldn’t be in the public interest at all if a media agency got to control too many consumer decisions. The ACCC prevents companies from gaining too much monopoly power, but it’s doubtful that agencies have been much of their focus in the past – client conflict rules have tended to self regulate. But if deals like this are taken too far, greater scrutiny may be called for.

In a great discussion you should watch, called ‘How cat videos will save journalism,’ proprietors of new media darlings like Buzzfeed and Junkee make an admirable defence. They refer to a golden age of journalism, driven by new players and fragmentation. And while some new titles may have just two editorial staff, so long as there are hundreds of them, a wide range of perspectives will still be voiced.  But Tim Duggan, content director of The Sound Alliance (which runs Junkee and others), also says in the video that up to 30 per cent of their revenue is driven by native advertising, which he defines as ‘Quality content inspired by brand and delivered in stream – looking the same as every other piece of editorial’.  That statement was probably meant to guarantee a certain user experience, but its implications are worrying. Duggan also refers to the fact that they’ve taken some of the proceeds of lighter journalism to fund more investigative pieces, due to the ‘greater intent of the publisher’. In Duggan’s case he has a long history of community advocacy, so that intent is undoubtedly honourable. But to expect this to universally apply to all publishers would be quite a rose tinted view of the future.

It’s telling then, that deputy editor of The Australian and former editor-in-chief of the Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Fray, counters this view, pointing out that “Seeking truth is a very expensive thing to do, and not a lot of people want to fund it… (…) …If we take as our central premise that journos exist to seek truth, then we don’t have a model that includes native advertising.” Before you write those comments off as the words of old fashioned editors at the ‘dinosaur’ press, consider the irony: The ‘new’ media, built on the democracy and freedom of the web, are making deals that may have elicited an ethical shudder from the old guard.

These emerging types of media deals are undoubtedly clever. But the problem now is, if the moral line was crossed, how would we ever even know?

This article first appeared on www.switzer.com.au