Is it fair to call “brand journalism” journalism?

October 29, 2015

How much does a source matter? Do we care if we get our daily dose of Internet memes and animals pictures from the Post or Purina? The clicks say no.

A cover story in a past issue of the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) delves into the modern and mysterious beast of “content marketing” and its role in the media and continues to be discussed by us here at Resource Media today.

To some extent, journalism and the media have always relied on corporate sponsorship via advertisement, but now corporations are skipping that step altogether and producing their own content called content marketing or brand journalism.

Sometimes companies sponsor “native advertisements,” or articles designed to blend in with the rest of a publication while promoting their product. Yet increasingly, it seems like content marketing does not directly relate to a product or its benefits. Companies are beginning to create anything readers will consume, from advice sites and recipes to original comedy Hulu series and celebrity interviews.

The CJR cover story focuses on the case of Purina pet food, whose pet nutrition Facebook page has more followers than the local newspaper. Through their daily updates and advice, Purina aims to create a brand that is more than a marketer, but a trusted expert, a fun resource, and a friend.

Brand journalism revolves around the idea that our social media feeds are modern homepages for all we want to know about life. As people spend more time on Facebook than at the kitchen counter with The Times, media morphs to grasp our ever-shifting attention. Instead of traditional advertisements, companies try to create corporate content that we’ll want to share with friends on these ever-influential peer-to-peer feeds.

Every time we click or share this company-content we tell the media sphere that strict journalism isn’t wanted or needed. We’re saying that whoever produces the best content gets our attention, even if that source has an agenda. It doesn’t seem to be a matter of whether or not companies have “duped” readers into thinking they’re getting real journalism, because even when content-marketing is clearly labeled the public doesn’t seem to care.

CJR poses the big question: should we? On a gut level I want to say, of course. Traditional journalism is essential for democracy. Reporters of impartial information are key creators of transparency and knowledge, which informs public opinion and power that eventually shapes the nation.

Corporation-driven media is emphatically not impartial, and though it may be created to look like journalism it lacks traditional journalistic standards. By definition, any form of marketing is an attempt to sell or promote a product or service. So even if the “content” in “content marketing” is similar to journalism, the “marketing” motive is opposite.

But websites like the “Richmond Standard” would like you to believe otherwise. This self-proclaimed “community-driven news” site has articles about local news and issues, but it is run by Chevron, the largest employer in Richmond, California.

While the site does present true information about life in Richmond, it doesn’t present the full picture. You’d be hard pressed to find an honest article about the pros and cons of the oil industry or its environmental impact in the Richmond Standard, even though refinery workers and towns are disproportionately effected by some of the hazardous health effects of the oil industry.

This example highlights the dangerous monopoly on information lurking behind brand journalism. But at the same time, I find myself drawn to some types of marketed content.

For instance, Chipotle created a cute and effective anti-factory farming music video to a Willie Nelson cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist.” I watched it, and when it finished my first instinct was, “I have to share this,” despite the fact that the video was embedded in CJR’s article about content marketing.

I also sought out my internship with Resource Media, a public-interest PR firm, after an internship with a non-profit public-interest investigative journalism site (ProPublica). I could have interned with another newspaper, but I chose Resource Media instead.

In both these instances, I bought into the idea of “intentional” media because I believed in the message. In my opinion, food systems reform and environmental issues are indeed in the public interest and just as important as muckraking investigative journalism. In fact, in some ways, I believe public relations and content marketing can be more effective in making change than pure journalism. But then who is to say which viewpoints deserve to be pushed and which do not?

Ultimately, the public should have this power. We should decide what gets disseminated – reform or retail. As CJR notes, “we’ve always been out there in the information landscape on our own, choosing what to trust and what to ignore. The difference now is that there are fewer distinct features, fewer landmarks to guide us.”

If the public falls for a puppy video with a corporate sponsor, that is partially the public’s fault. At the same time, at least among my peers, much media consumption today seems mindless. People do not seek out information so much as run into it on a Facebook feed. This ultimately makes us more vulnerable to corporate content.

What worries me is the possibility for corporations to dictate the media, and genuinely limit public access to information. More often, companies are paying for prime spots on newsfeeds and media sights, just like prime-time TV slots. If social media feeds dictate news traffic, then there is a foreseeable future in which money dictates the news via paid feed priority. This is already the case with BuzzFeed, which makes its money by treating “traffic as its own advertisement,” giving feed time to “any brand willing to pay” (Andrew Rice, New York magazine). Even on Facebook, pages without paid advertising reach only 16% of fans, on average. This means those with money get disproportionately more visibility, regardless of public support.

If more sites take up this mantra, social media could go from a democratic display of public interests to a sounding board for the wealthiest bidders. In this case, I think we need to seriously consider business’ right to buy the media and the role of brand journalism.

— Claire Kelloway, Former Intern