How much do ads influence newspaper editorial content?

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By Atty. Pachico A. Seares

Media's Public

Friday, March 21, 2014


“The advertisements are the most truthful part of a newspaper.”
-- Thomas Jefferson

ONE after another, BIR, the revenue arm of the government, ran in the first two weeks of March two newspaper ads that shamed doctors.

One ad said teachers paid more taxes than doctors, teasing that “when you don’t pay your taxes, you’re a burden to those who do.” The second ad said that doctors paid less taxes than teachers in Cebu and Davao.

The photo in the ads showed the doctor riding on the shoulders of the teacher, a piggy-back image of dependence by a group of professionals on another group of professionals. Teachers earned much less than doctors and yet carried the heavier burden: that was the message.

The ads prompted an editorial of the same paper that ran the ads. The paper’s opinion was that BIR erred in shaming the doctors as it depicted them as tax cheats.

Message

Our concern here is not whether BIR was right but whether the paper which profited from the ads had the duty to support, and didn’t have the right to flog, the message in those ads.

May the paper’s editorial page tear at the idea propagated by an ad in its revenue space?

There’s some confusion over the responsibility of the paper over ads that it runs.

Before anything else, Jefferson’s statement on the truth that ads carry (see lead quote) must be examined.

Apparently, the US statesman said that against newspapers he criticized for falsehoods and mistakes; thus the hyperbole. (Mark Twain scoffs at newspapers even harder: “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed; if you read the newspaper, you’re misinformed.”) And Jefferson said that before the papers seriously assumed their role of being purveyors of information.

Not today

Media audiences then were not as sensitive to, and critical of, their media as they are today. In that age, Jefferson would rather read the ads than the news riddled with lies and errors and opinion filled with venom and spite.

That can’t be said of newspapers and broadcast media these days. Their thrust in marketing is credibility, “un-swayed by fear or favor.” Media don’t always succeed, true, but editorial content no longer deserves Jefferson’s or Twain’s brand of derision.

A newspaper’s editorial is not tethered to the belief espoused by an ad--in this case, the BIR blast at doctors and other professionals. After all, newspapers are supposed to advocate public good, un-influenced by profit. What may be held suspect is when media defend the advertiser’s cause in its editorial space because of the money the ad placements bring to company coffers.

Besides, if editorial opinion must align with the view the ads carry, an individual or group can “buy” that support by simply putting in tons of ads.

The advertiser thus secures not just the ad space but the editorial province as well.

Disclaimer

Can a newspaper then make a disclaimer that it is not responsible for its ad materials?

Every now and then, job applicants swindled by bogus agencies complain to the paper about the ad run to recruit them. Or a buyer gripes against defects of the product advertised. Or an employee howls when his company shames him in an ad terminating his services. Or a person announced dead in an obit turns out to be alive and is screaming hell.

There are laws and rules that aim to prevent fraud, deception and pranks in newspaper ads. But they don’t work all the time.

While the paper can’t be held liable for what the buyer suffers from false advertising--“caveat emptor,” on your guard, and so forth--it has the duty to stop and correct any deceit.

Rejecting ads

The paper doesn’t guarantee quality of a product or authenticity of service offered in its pages but it must act immediately to expose and rectify any misleading message.

Government agencies on business and trade practices are also tasked to weed out swindlers that use advertising to defraud.

And papers on their own may reject ads that are offensive, aside from what the law bans as illegal.

Papers can’t run an ad soliciting would-be brides; the law prohibits that. They can refuse an ad that ridicules a religious practice or cultural trait; good taste demands that.

Election propaganda

During an election season sometime ago, a politician sued Sun.Star before the Comelec, alleging it refused his ad “on personal and political grounds.”

The ad didn’t promote a candidate or attack his rival but castigated the paper, as if it were the candidate.

While the paper has the duty to provide ad space to competing aspirants for public office, as required by law and plain fairness, it is not required to run an ad that is equivalent to shooting itself in the gut.

There’s right of reply, which the paper supplies for free, but it doesn’t allow libel and slander in that reply.

Surely, informed and alert readers can help promote responsibility in advertising, by advertisers and media alike.

[publicandstandards@sunstar.com.ph]

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on March 22, 2014.

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