What do you think when you see a related ad near a news story?

January 6, 2013

Our copy editors alerted me late Saturday night to the inadvertent placement of a news story about DeTar Hospital near the hospital's front-page ad. They were concerned the juxtaposition might give some readers the wrong idea.

I didn't consider the concern strong enough to rip up the front page minutes before deadline, but we do plan to discuss the issue during our monthly ethics board meeting this week. As always, we welcome your thoughts on this and any other issue. Please post here or feel free to attend our meeting at 1 p.m. Tuesday in our offices at 311 E. Constitution St.

The story in question was developed by new health reporter Keldy Ortiz, who was curious about the billboards he saw driving around Victoria. He wanted to explain to readers why the hospital considered this issue important and talked with other hospitals, including competing Citizens Medical Center, and the Centers for Disease Control for a national comparison.

No problem there, right? However, does your view of the story change when you see it appears above a DeTar ad? I was pleased copy editors raised the possible conflict because it's easy for journalists, focused on editing the news, to look past the ads on a page. This happened recently at a Connecticut newspaper, which published a story about Sandy Hook Elementary students returning to school next to an ad for a gun show. The paper received national criticism for this juxtaposition.

DeTar, Citizens and many advertisers appear regularly in your Advocate, of course. The marriage of news and advertising is a time-honored tradition at the core of our business. We routinely steer around this awkward alliance under the direction of the Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics. The code's key line for our discussion is this: "Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage."

We can confidently say we did that with this story. However, another section of the code advises journalists to "distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two." Does the page, which I posted below, distinguish sufficiently between the news story and the related ad?

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