Journalism and Advertising: A Complicated Relationship
In a recent conversation, a friend of mine made a joke that has stuck in my mind.
We were talking about public trust in the media and what might be causing people to distrust the worldview presented by major news networks and talk shows.
Then my friend made a point that was more serious than I think either of us really grasped at the time.
“I haven’t really been able to believe anything I see on T.V. after hearing David Letterman call ‘Jack and Jill’ ‘hilarious’ while interviewing Adam Sandler.”
For those who don’t know, “Jack and Jill” is a film in which Adam Sandler plays both a man and a woman, and in which Academy Award-winning actor Al Pacino has a lengthy synchronized dance number in which he sings about Dunkin Donuts. It has a 3% on Rotten Tomatoes.
We both laughed at this observation at the time, but there is, as is often the case, something a little deeper to this seemingly inconsequential joke.
David Letterman and Adam Sandler are both paid, in one way or another, by Sony Corporation. Sony pays Adam Sandler directly, as Sony Corporation owns Columbia pictures, the distributor for the film.
But, more importantly, David Letterman gets paid, too.
The fact is, a major company pays for advertising, and they don’t pay in the millions. They pay in the billions.
In this case, last year, according to Nasdaq trading information, Sony Corporation spent an impressive $3.27 billion in advertising worldwide.
Much of this money, of course, goes directly to major television networks in order to buy airtime for commercials and for other forms of advertising, such as native ads, which are ads presented as part of the networks actual programming, such as news reports that highlight the use of a product.
This advertising is the main source of revenue for almost every network.
So, with that in mind, it wouldn’t be a terrible surprise that a television host might be inclined to say something nice about a universally panned movie in order to stay in the good graces of a company that helps pay his bills.
Again, a company like Sony Corporation pays $3.27 billion for advertising. Most of that money goes to major networks, so even if only a few million dollars of that money goes to the network producing the show in question, a few million dollars to buy a lot of good will.
There’s nothing much wrong with this process morally. While David Letterman loses a little bit of his integrity, it’s not as though he puts anybody at risk by pretending to like a terrible movie, and he makes a little money for himself and for the studio. Everyone goes on to punch a clock another day.
By and large, this is accepted as the way things must be done. Networks need to make money, advertisers need to sell their products. It’s a completely fair and even somewhat inevitable system.
Consider another scenario.
Let’s say a reporter for CNN, or MSNBC, or Fox News is presented with a story, or even a few stories, about a medication that has been causing serious medical conditions in patients prescribed these medications by a doctor.
Now let’s consider that pharmaceutical companies pay a combined $6 billion in advertising, double that of a media empire like Sony Corporation.
Does this $6 billion provide an incentive for major medical stories to be ignored?
This is a difficult point to prove or disprove. For obvious reasons, there isn’t a lot of media coverage about the media’s possible inability to police itself in the face of powerful corporations.
So, instead, an inference must be drawn based on statistical information.
According to a report from the National Center for Health Statistics, the statistical arm of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in the US alone, approximately 106,000 patients die annually due to adverse reactions to drugs.
Prior to researching this article, I had certainly never heard this statistic, and I suspect many readers hadn’t either.
It’s not a statistic that I remember hearing reported by a news network.
My first reaction was even to doubt the statistics, and if both the FDA and CDC had not published reports with similar findings, I would have discounted the number as fake.
So, why haven’t I heard this number before? It’s a pretty significant one, especially considering that it is limited to only one country.
Once again, I am forced to ask, could $6 billion spent in advertising be an incentive to a major network to ignore reports of adverse reactions to drugs?
This is, of course, a very extreme example, but the conflict of interest represented by a situation like this should be fairly clear.
Consider any number of less extreme examples, such as political groups who either directly, through ad space, or indirectly, through organizational donations give money to networks.
Let’s say, as is perfectly reasonable, that even with all this money coming in from advertisers, that the networks, are not swayed.
Let’s say that the competition between these networks is enough that they don’t all have the same advertisers paying them the same money and that this competitiveness provides them with enough incentive to run stories that aren’t necessarily complimentary to an errant company.
What incentive is there, for a smaller, print media news organization?
As has often been said, print media is dying. There is simply not as much money in running a newspaper as there has historically been, and it is certainly not economically sustainable to run one based on the subscription system of days past.
As a matter of fact, it is becoming rapidly harder to keep a printed newspaper or magazine going and, in light of this fact, most publications are moving more and more toward a completely digital format.
This digital format, though it expedites the publication process in many exciting ways, is weakened by the fact that it is, as of now, almost completely based around advertising.
Printed newspapers are also now almost entirely sustained through advertising.
So, we have a dying industry, working in a system that is little understood, and based almost entirely around advertising.
What sort of incentives might that create?
I don’t believe this problem is a permanent one. I believe that as time goes on, the business model for webbased publications will continue to evolve to make publishers more beholden to readers.
But for now, at least, I believe that a little healthy skepticism in the media we consume is a good thing.
Skepticism, after all, is the basis of all good journalism, and it may very well be the first step toward anything that even resembles truth.