Editorial: Lies, damn lies, and advertising

Last weekend, the Sunday Times ran three articles on its third page, a page normally reserved for strong news stories, praising the governance of Gauteng Premier David Makhura.

These articles were no such thing. They lacked balance. They were not good journalism.
The articles, under the byline “Special Reporter”, quoted Makhura at length, talking up his achievements in Gauteng. The typeface used was nearly indistinguishable from the rest of the newspaper, except for the main headline. The layout also followed the newspaper’s style. The only indication that this was not a news report were the words in the strapline: “Brought to you by the Gauteng provincial government”. Above this was the misleading label, “Special Report”.

The page was nothing but a deliberate attempt to dupe readers into believing the articles were news reports and that the page was not a full page advert drawing on the credibility of the Sunday Times’ new stories.

A lengthy exchange must have taken place between the advertising department at Tiso Blackstar, the publishers of the Sunday Times, and the province about how to make the advert look as near as possible to actual news reports. It was the ANC provincial government paying for credibility on page three.

Elections are less than two months away. Gauteng will be tightly contested and the ANC wants to retain control. This is a time when serious journalism is required, ensuring that voters are kept informed.

The Star did the same thing, running a “special report” about Makhura. The difference was that The Star, published by financially strapped Independent Media chaired by Iqbal Survé, didn’t even say that the advert had been paid for by the province.

The choice of words is critical. Adverts such as those that appeared in the Sunday Times and The Star are usually clearly tagged “advertorial”. The words “special report” are reserved for news articles or features that focus on an important issue or are exclusive to the newspaper. There are special reports on subjects such as land restitution or climate change, not on the self-aggrandisement of political figures.

The Star’s article, with the headline “Makhura looks back with a smile as ordinary Gautengers’ lives change”, also carried the byline of a journalist.

These developments are alarming. When ethical standards collapse, advertisers expect other media outlets to follow suit.

There has long been a healthy tension between newspapers’ advertising and editorial departments. At the Mail & Guardian, the tension between the commercial side of the company wanting to sell adverts to bring in much-needed income and the editorial side wanting to protect journalistic integrity leads to robust and often fraught arguments. The devil is in the detail.

These are details that many publications seem to be giving up on. For example, some radio stations refuse to run stories unless they are paid to do so. Trade publications don’t investigate corrupt developers who take out adverts. Online publications copy and paste press releases and run them under the byline “general reporter”, but this presents releases as trustworthy. Press releases are curated versions of reality and they are often riddled with lies or omissions. Just like the Gauteng government adverts posing as news stories.

Good journalism is critical to the functioning of a healthy democracy. It has rights enshrined in the Constitution. But rights come with responsibilities. Deliberately misleading readers is an abdication of them.

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