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 article 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.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories


Subscribers only

The war on women in video game culture

Women and girls make up almost half of the gaming community but are hardly represented and face abuse in the industry

Q&A Sessions: Marcia Mayaba —Driven to open doors for women

Marcia Mayaba has been in the motor industry for 24 years, donning hats that include receptionist, driver, fuel attendant, dealer principal and now chief...

More top stories

Ace tries to widen net to catch all with revised...

Ace Magashule tells provinces to add those accused, but not charged, to step-aside list

South Africa temporarily halts J&J vaccine rollout plan

South Africa opts to voluntarily suspend its vaccination programme following advice from US health authorities after a rare blood clot development.

Judge Pillay tells JSC court-defying politicians threaten constitution

The judge, who has been singled out by former president Jacob Zuma for attack, faced scrutiny over her friendship with Pravin Gordhan

ConCourt interviews tackle transformation

Acting Constitutional Court Justice Rammaka Mathopo told the JSC it was ‘remiss’ that female and black lawyers were still underrepresented

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…