On labelling advertorials

By Jonathan Sas, for The Tyee

Special Information Section folded into Oct. 2 print edition of the Globe and Mail, atop other Special Information Sections published on other dates. (Photo: Jonathan Sas)

By Jonathan Sas, for The Tyee

Special Information Section folded into Oct. 2 print edition of the Globe and Mail, atop other Special Information Sections published on other dates. (Photo: Jonathan Sas)

"Journalism, commercial interests should be kept separate."

So ran the headline of a post written by the Globe and Mail's public editor Sylvia Stead on Sept. 27.

In the midst of the uproar over Margaret Wente's plagiarism, Stead was busy trying to put out another fire, this one over an article from a freelance journalist who had written glowingly about the house she was selling. In this post, Stead concedes that Globe editors had erred in running the story.

The headline, however, speaks to the Globe's recognition of something broader and ultimately more important: their duty to maintain a clear line between editorial content and the interests of advertisers. One would expect as much from any serious journalistic outlet.

Allowing that line to blur signals a more serious conflict of interest than was printing the real estate article, or failing to be transparent about the misdeeds of a sloppy columnist.

Unfortunately, as careful readers of The Globe might well have noticed, the self-styled "paper of record" has not been living up to its responsibility. Not by a long shot.

An information feature

On Tuesday Oct. 2, The Globe's broadsheet came with an eight page section headlined "The Future of the Oil Sands." As issues of national importance go, it doesn't get much bigger than this.

Sitting at the cross section of so many important economic, ecological, and community considerations country wide, the public would certainly benefit from an in-depth and rigorously reported series on the topic.

At first glance, and even at second and third, that is likely what many readers thought they were getting.

Labelled "An Information Feature" in small type at the top of the page, this section was laid out, near as I could tell, the same as any other Globe section: From the column width to the size and style of the font; from the headings to the layout and integration of infographics and advertisements. At the top of each page, next to the date, sat The Globe and Mail's branding. In large type in the upper left hand corner of the front page was the ambiguous word "Special."

Several paragraphs into the lead article, however, I got the sense that something wasn't right. Given its strong pro-industry tone, I wondered if this and indeed the entire section was an advertorial.

Advertorial is the industry term for an advertisement presented to look like journalism. Typically, an advertorial supplement would be laid out in such a way or would be clearly labeled so as to be distinguishable from a paper's editorial content. But this section was given a neutral label, "An Information Feature," and, after all, newsrooms do produce features that carry information. A reader might logically assume the editorial team is so proud of what they are presenting they might call it "Special." Plus, there was normal Globe branding on every page. At first and even second glance, there was no obvious visual cue that I might be reading bought public relations rather than news and analysis by Globe journalists.

On closer inspection, however, some curious signs emerged.

The pages were lined with ads from oil industry and government: the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), Statoil, Sustainable Development Technology Canada, Devon Energy Corporation. And all the "reporting" pieces running next to the ads lacked bylines. Something was up.

The most conspicuous indicators that this content was not a product of The Globe's editorial team were the cleverly labeled "expert opinions." Those experts included Dan Wicklum, Chief Executive of Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) and a Q&A with Chris Seasons, president of Devon Energy Corporation Canada. That's the same Devon Energy with an ad covering half of page four of the spread.

On the front page was printed a link offering readers "more information." I typed it into my browser and arrived at the web version of the The Future of the Oil Sands package. There, sitting atop the webpage, was a leader board clearly displaying the answers to my questions.

The Special Information Feature had been sponsored by Devon Energy.

Identifier appearing on web version but not the print version of Globe section.

If it was labeled as advertorial online, why wasn't it labeled as such in print? Had The Globe changed its policy on how it displays advertorials? If so, why weren't readers alerted? Was The Globe's editorial staff involved in any way in the creation of the section? What was the label "information feature" meant to communicate to readers?

For the rest of the story, head on over to The Tyee, where Jonathan Sas explains the public editor’s response, the types of custom content The Globe has available to advertisers and what this means for readers.

Editor’s Note: At a CJF J-Talk in October, The Globe editor-in-chief John Stackhouse explained that there had been discussion about how to label advertorials in print and said that the paper needs to be more clear with readers about it. 


Related stories: Is this article trying to sell you something? (Or, the role of advertorials)