Commentary: HeraldNet’s ‘sponsored content’ ads misleading

The campaign ads are made to resemble the newspaper’s journalism, raising concerns for fairness.

By Rory Graves

I am writing to express my disappointment in The Herald’s decision to run sponsored content for political candidates on its website. For those not familiar with the term, these are ads that are made to resemble news stories but are clearly pushing the agenda of the “sponsor” in the story. Some publications have opened up sponsored content to businesses, but I think making these ads available to political candidates it a gross misstep.

The bulk of my career has been in journalism and communications, and I take tremendous pride in subscribing and donating to various public media organigations and publications. I know how hard it can be for a newsroom to do all that it does with a small crew on a lean budget. I understand the need for new streams of revenue in the digital world, where consumers begrudge paying for content and ad revenue is scant and unreliable. I also know that layoffs are imminent for newsrooms that don’t find innovative ways to bring in revenue. These are difficult times for journalists.

The Herald’s decision to run sponsored content for Snohomish County Council candidate Anna Rohrbough’s campaign threatens its integrity as a publication. It has also failed to comply with all of the FTC guidelines for “native ads” as they call it. Please, at the very least, comply with those rules if you insist on running these misleading ads.

As The Washington Post’s slogan so aptly puts it, “Democracy dies in darkness.” In a world where politicians villainize journalism that reports truths and shines a light on corruption, we need a media that we can trust more than ever. You serve a role as vital to democracy as any of the other three branches of our government; journalism is the fourth estate. Please do not let the need for more revenue get in the way of this most important role. These ads are confusing and hard to distinguish from The Herald’s reported stories. These ads present bias in what should be factual reporting.

I am happy to see that Rohrbough’s opponent, Megan Dunn, chose not to purchase sponsored ads from The Herald. I hope other political candidates, no matter their political affiliation, see what a threat to the democratic process ads like these are and do not purchase them.

I run this election for the Edmonds School Board, and I have seen many questionable practices when it comes to campaign ads from other candidates. I would hope that those of us seeking public office can hold each other to a higher standard.

I appreciate that your editorial board interviews candidates and gives endorsements and that the board and process for that is separate from The Herald’s news operations. I am proud to have earned an endorsement from The Herald in my bid for election. However, I will not be giving the Herald any of my money until I see that you have dropped the practice of sponsored content for political candidates. I’d also suggest creating a series of stories on media literacy.

Rory Graves lives in Edmonds.

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