Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

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

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them.

Related stories

WELCOME TO YOUR M&G

If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here

Advertising

Subscribers only

Mkhize tenders resignation as Ramaphosa calls top six meeting, fueling...

Mkhize’s resignation and the top six meeting are the clearest indicators yet that Ramaphosa is intending to make a much-anticipated cabinet reshuffle

Zuma funder link in Phoenix killings

Weapons have been seized from a number of security companies owned by ANC-linked individuals who are loyal to the former president

More top stories

Markets react as Mboweni steps down in Ramaphosa cabinet reshuffle

ANC economic policy head Enoch Godongwana takes over the finance portfolio

Mkhize tenders resignation as Ramaphosa calls top six meeting, fueling...

Mkhize’s resignation and the top six meeting are the clearest indicators yet that Ramaphosa is intending to make a much-anticipated cabinet reshuffle

Zuma funder link in Phoenix killings

Weapons have been seized from a number of security companies owned by ANC-linked individuals who are loyal to the former president

ANC factions united on Zweli Mkhize

Despite agreement that it would be politically ‘unwise’ for the president to remove the health minister before the Special Tribunal makes its decision on the application by the Special Investigating Unit, he may have just done so
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…
×