'It ain't journalism,' Patrick Pexton, on Washington Post Sponsored Views

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Patrick Pexton was the Washington Post's ombudsman from 2011 to earlier this year. (Credit: Twitter, screenshot)

Last month, iMediaEthics discussed with former Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton the ethics and implications of brand journalism and the Washington Post’s Sponsored Views program.

As iMediaEthics has reported, the Sponsored Views program, which was officially launched on June 12, allows special interest groups to buy advertisements that are presented as comments below op-ed pieces on the Washington Post website.

The move came three months after the Post eliminated the newspaper’s longstanding independent ombudsman position and replaced it with a reader representative who is on the publication’s payroll.

Pexton served as the Washington Post’s ombudsman from 2011 until the position was terminated in March 2012. He has been a journalist for more than 30 years and served as deputy editor of the National Journal before becoming ombudsman for the Washington Post.

Since iMediaEthics reached out to Pexton on June 20, Pexton has blogged twice on his own website about the ethics of brand journalism.

He stated in a later email that iMediaEthics sparked his interest in the topic.

See below for the full June 24 Q&A between iMediaEthics and Pexton.

iMediaEthics: With regard to the Washington Post’s launching of its “Sponsored Views” program, why do you think the company has decided to do this?

Patrick Pexton: The foremost reason is financial. The Post needs more revenue, from as many sources as it can find, to shore up declining revenues from print advertising. Web advertising pays a fraction of what print ads earn, and The Post is looking at many different kinds of innovation in advertising to attract more revenue. I think this is mainly a financial decision.

But I’m sure it’s also partly to respond to advertisers who want to enter the “sponsored content” game, and this is one innovative way to respond to it.

iMediaEthics: Do you believe that the Post’s “Sponsored Views” program and other forms of brand journalism threaten the integrity of the industry?

Pexton: I think Sponsored Views and most other kinds of sponsored content, in essence, are just new words for advertorials, messages provided by advertisers in a way that looks like journalism, or slightly cloaked journalism.

I think that most of this depends on where the lines are drawn for each kind of sponsored content. In the case of sponsored views, as long as it stays with editorials and opinions, I think it passes the ethics muster. But I think it also indicates the tremendous weakness of the media industry, financially, in this period. And every time a new innovation comes down the road like Sponsored Views, the lines between journalism and advertising get progressively blurred and in the long run this is bad for journalism.

iMediaEthics: This is a quote I found on BrandJournalists.com:

“[Journalism] is all about telling stories aimed at specific audiences. That’s it. Objectivity is a fantasy; a news reporter can’t help but bring his or her biases to a story, no matter how hard he or she tries to be impartial. The practice of journalism, at its core, is about earning and keeping a reader’s interest.”

Do you agree?

Pexton: I just looked through the website you mentioned, brandjournalists.com. I agree with parts of that statement but not all.

I do agree with brandjournalists.com that storytelling is the essence of human communication. Absolutely. And yes, news reporters bring their own biases and inclinations to any story, but I think objectivity is still a worthwhile goal. That doesn’t mean he said-she said journalism, but it does mean standing back, and based on that reporters’ often considerable experience with the subject, and with life in general, making some judgments about what is important and what isn’t. After covering Congress for a while, for example, you know which hearings are important and which aren’t, which votes are important, and which aren’t, to the broad majority of readers.

Yes, journalists should earn and keep the readers’ interest. But they’re also about showing readers  the world around them, putting it into context for them, which most readers don’t have time to do. Where journalists differ is that they are not about messaging. Each story a journalist writes may contain a message, but it also has to contain what he or she sees as the truth.  Brandjournalism is being paid by a company to get a specific message across, artfully.  It certainly has its place, but it isn’t journalism.

Journalists are more about truth telling, as they see it, and about reporting, which takes time and  talent. Brandjournalists may do reporting about the companies that hire them, great, but it is still all about the selling. That’s different.

iMediaEthics: The people at BrandJournalists.com contend that brand journalism a valid form of journalism; they equate it to political and sports journalism. Do you agree with this sentiment?

Pexton: No, I do not agree, as explained above. It is true that political journalists help politicians get their messages out, but that’s not all what they do. They look at voting records, past history, life history, accomplishment history, and all of that is helping readers vet the politicians. They are not paid by campaigns to get out a specific message. They are more neutral than that.

Sports journalists also are “used” by sports franchises to sell tickets in a way, but readers love sports, it’s a unique part of their recreational and  non-working lives, and far better for a journalist not paid by a team to tell of the team’s ups and downs, than a brandjournalist who would only get out the message that the team owner wanted.

No matter how you look at it, no matter how well crafted and artful, brand journalism is advertising pure and simple.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its place, but it ain’t journalism.

iMediaEthics: Do you think that there has been an increase in the prevalence of brand journalism practices in recent years?

Pexton: Yes, of course. I think companies are smart to do so. Just don’t confuse it with journalism.

This is part of a continuing iMediaEthics series about brand journalism.

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‘It ain’t journalism,’ Patrick Pexton, Former WaPo Ombudsman on Brand Journalism

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