Whose brand is it anyway?
Unions still needed to protect journalists' integrity in the face of creeping advertorial
Last summer, The Globe and Mail wanted to introduce a drastic change: editorial staff writing and editing advertorial copy as part of their regular duties. If this branded content proposal became a mandate, journalists would serve advertisers rather than their readers. It might have happened at the Globe if the unionized staff did not take a stand and vote for a strike. Branded content wasn’t the only item in the negotiations—job security and wages were also sticking points—but it was a vital issue.
With the help of trade union Unifor, the paper and its employees averted a strike. Unifor Local 87-M, the Southern Ontario Newsmedia Guild, has 2,800 members including 374 at the Globe and others at the Toronto Star, the London Free Press and numerous other publications. When journalists face job cuts, unions are increasingly powerless—but they can still play a role in ethical battles, such as the one over branded content.
During the Globe negotiations, the concern was not only with writing advertorials, but also the way in which it would be presented to readers. According to Howard Law, director of the media sector at Unifor, writing branded content affects the integrity of the journalist. To Paul Morse, president of Unifor Local 87-M, printing branded content and calling it regular reporting is “a line in the sand” for journalists. “They were asking them to write content that was sponsored by an advertiser, but it would look like a regular report,” says Morse. According to a Unifor memo obtained by Jesse Brown and published on the Canadaland website, the branded content would be “vetted by the advertiser prior to publication and held out to readers as staff written-content.”
No journalist is immune to such challenges. Morse says that the negotiations at the Globe around working conditions, including the branded content proposal, sent a “loud message to journalists across Canada” that those issues matter.
The paper eventually withdrew the proposal, but ethicist Klaus Pohle, a journalism professor at Carleton University, is still shocked and appalled. “I expect that of rinky-dink newspapers, not The Globe and Mail,” he says. “The ethical issue is clear: it’s a conflict of interest. When you ask a journalist to write promotional advertising as news, that’s almost fraudulent.”
Pohle says journalists can’t wear two hats at the same time and therefore, advertising and news can’t overlap. He also notes that most readers are unable to differentiate between branded content and news, so writing advertiser-approved copy will make the situation even worse. Branded content is approved by the advertiser, but isn’t about the advertiser.
The union, journalists and the public are aware of the newspapers’ economic challenges. But there are limits to compromises. Unifor’s Sue Andrew, chair of the Globe unit, believes journalists write for readers and not advertisers. “We’re not in the business of having our writing vetted by corporations,” she says. “Collectively, we felt that blurring the line between our journalism and paid-for advertising copy would have eroded the Globe’s long-term integrity for short-term financial gain.”
Addressing the financial challenges does not mean that journalists are willing to give up their basic journalistic ethics. While ethical values aren’t negotiable, there are ways to address these issues. Pohle suggests a solution to financially struggling publications that attempt to propose something similar to the Globe: “Hire promotional writers and clearly label the advertorial,” he says. “That’s conventional. That’s normal.”
Editorial staffers resisted the Globe’s advertorial proposal, but they had a union that bargained on their behalf. However, unions are not the answer to every problem—especially when it comes to job cuts. Steve Faguy, a copy editor at Montreal’s The Gazette, says the Montreal Newspaper Guild has been involved in negotiations in his workplace that included pushing people who were close to retirement into retirement, while keeping younger employees. There is little that can be done to stop the job cuts or the changing job environment. “If there is an order, ‘There has to be X number of people employed,’ then that’s what will happen,” Faguy says. With the decrease in revenue and the transition to digital, job cuts are inevitable. Unions support staff journalists, but that doesn’t help employers increase short-term revenue.
In the case of the Globe, the unionized workers would have walked off the job if they didn’t reach a deal. Whether in print or broadcast, employees are facing challenging situations and there is no guarantee that advertorial proposals will not be introduced in the future by other organizations, as “native advertising” has become commonplace.
For most journalists, core ethical values are not negotiable. But the fear is that an employer might use a proposal like the Globe’s as a means to an end—make staff accept offers that compromise their wages and job security so they don’t have to alter their journalistic principles.
Photo credit: Brian Wolk