Advertiser Blacklisting and Its Silencing Effect on Journalism
Journalism is, at its heart, about asking questions. And since the dawn of reporting, when civic-minded locals in ancient Rome circulated news sheets about important daily events, one question has been elevated above all others: Does this serve the public interest?
The way we answer “yes” to that query has, naturally, changed over time. During the heydey of newspapers, reporters served the public interest by covering the ins and outs of local elections and municipal policy. National magazines and papers have served the public interest by covering global affairs and exposing political and corporate malfeasance through long-form investigations.
Sometimes, there’s been impassioned debate about how that question should be addressed. Digital media didn’t invent content geared more toward entertaining than informing, but it has certainly perfected it, inciting valuable discussions about the very nature of the public’s interest.
Nevertheless, through it all, the central question itself has remained resolute. Until now.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran a story diving deep into a problem that, in recent years, has shifted the very paradigm of journalistic work. In an increasingly polarized environment, advertisers are dictating the kinds of content they will and won’t associate their brand with. Increasingly, and unfortunately, the content they seek to distance themselves from is the very kind that serves the public interest most.
According to the Journal, major companies are refusing to place ads next to stories that include words like “shooting,” “ISIS,” “Russia,” “Trump,” and “Obama.” The blacklist for Alphabet Inc’s Google includes “federal investigation,” “antitrust,” “racism,” “FBI,” “taxes,” “anti-Semitic,” “gun control,” and “drought.” Some brands, including Subway and McDonald’s, are refusing to place ads beside hard-news content of essentially any kind, period.
This blacklisting approach is, to be fair, understandable. Horror stories about Disney ads appearing next to child-exploitation videos on YouTube, or Coca-Cola finding its brand name featured prominently alongside anti-Semitic and racist content, would chill anyone. And when many fringe media outlets peddle (actual) fake news and outright conspiracy theories, it makes sense to exercise an abundance of caution.
This is exacerbated by the fact that, in today’s media environment, advertisers are buying ads programmatically. Where once companies worked directly with a few (trusted) publications to place their ads, today they buy at mass scale, targeting broad audiences rather than specific outlets. This kind of purchasing leaves little room for the consideration of nuance, making blacklisting the easiest recourse available.
Yet the decision to shun certain kinds of content has a downside that can’t be ignored.
In order to remain financially solvent, publications are being forced to regularly ask if their content will appease weary advertisers. As such, where once reporters would prioritize stories dealing with the most pressing issues of the day — civil rights, political corruption, mass violence — today they are actively avoiding them, embracing instead inoffensive lifestyle content that a Disney or Coca-Cola could never possibly object to.
A similar problem manifests when publishers try to promote their content on social media networks like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, or Snapchat. Some stories simply aren’t allowed to be boosted because they are deemed too divisive or controversial.
At Granite Media, we’ve seen the impacts of this de-facto censorship firsthand. We do extensive online marketing with Facebook, which has blocked us from promoting content dealing with politics (even when the story in question is decidedly neutral), immigration, climate change, and mental health. And Facebook isn’t alone. Of course, we can still publish these stories on our websites, but if there isn’t as much advertiser demand, we won’t generate as much revenue, and if social media outlets prevent us from promoting, there won’t be as much audience. It would be a lie to say this has not influenced the kinds of stories we cover, or the way we approach potentially provocative topics.
So what can be done? Some outlets are pushing back by outright refusing to allow advertisers to block certain words. Vice Media, for example, has forbidden advertisers from blocking terms like “bisexual,” “gay,” “HIV,” “lesbian,” “Latino,” “Middle Eastern,” “Jewish,” and “Islamic.”
Others, including the Washington Post, are working directly with advertisers to help them understand context, so they’re less anxious about placing ads beside hard-news content. The Washington Post even told the Journal that it’s developing proprietary tools to this end.
On the marketing side, several big news outlets, like the AP and the New York Times, are getting authorized to create and run ads about social issues, elections, or politics.
The problem is that such options are generally only available to established, well-funded outlets.
Vice and the Washington Post can sway advertisers only because they have the resources, clout, and access to do so. The AP and New York Times can jump through the hoop of proving their content should be authorized because they have a long and proven journalistic track record.
This approach won’t work when ads are coming from “open” programmatic channel partnerships. For countless smaller media companies, putting up a meaningful fight isn’t simple.
The truth is, there are no easy solutions to the challenges currently being faced by digital-media outlets and advertisers. But what we can do, and indeed must do, is keep asking questions, starting with the most important question of all — even and especially when it’s the harder thing to do.
Does this serve the public interest?
Nikki Gloudeman is the Senior Editor for Granite Media's digital travel publication, Far & Wide. Granite, a profitable digital company that pairs professional journalism with 100% programmatic technology across both sales and marketing, also publishes FamilyMinded, Work + Money and Stadium Talk.
Prior to joining Granite, Nikki co-founded the website The Establishment, where she served as Editorial Director, and wrote for publications including The Boston Globe and Mother Jones.