Huffington Post vs. Fox News — Advertising Ethics

I’m not a fan of Fox News. It’s not a political thing … I just don’t like them. Still, those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, and Huffington Post throws an awful lot of stones.

I wouldn’t have gone to Fox News at all today had my eye not been caught by a breathless article by Jack Mirkinson at Huffington Post which called out Fox News for burying the story on today’s good jobs report. “Breathless” really isn’t hyperbole in this case. Mirkinson begins, “Quick! Can you find Fox News’s coverage of the latest job figures?” and this is followed by a screen capture from the Fox News site. He then says “Still can’t find them? OK, we’ll help you out. What if we zoom in?” and he zooms in a little. Finally, he says “OK, OK, we’ll show you! The link is that little one right in the corner there,” and then he zooms in the rest of the way. Pant, pant, pant … breathless Mirkinson.

Fair enough: A news article shouldn’t be hidden (or made more prominent) based on the political bias of the news organization. Something else on the Fox News site caught my eye as well though …

The picture below shows how sponsored content is labeled at Fox News and Huffington Post. See how Fox News has labeled the advertisement “SPONSORED” in bold red letters? To the right of that is exactly the same advertisement on Huffington Post labeled “ADVERTISEMENT.”

fox-huff

Advertisement at Fox News (left) and the same ad on Huffington Post (right)

If you’re having problems seeing the label on the Huffington Post ad … you’re not alone!!! Let me blow it up for you …

fox-huff2

Top: Fox News label “SPONSORED.” Bottom: Huffington Post label “ADVERTISEMENT.”

Pant, pant! Oh mercy! Now I’m all flustered and breathless just like Jack Mirkinson! 😛

Update #1 …

After my original post on this subject, I decided to go around the web and see how other news sites compare. I originally was going to make this a separate post, but this sort of thing is peripheral to the purpose of this blog and I don’t want to clutter up the readers of my followers with a bunch of junk they’re not interested in.

Advertising Honesty Around the Internet

A quick comparison of how ten news sites around the web label advertisements and sponsored content on their sites. I’ve put them in order from best to worst.

ad_label_fairness

  1. Al Jazeera America. No labels, but they have practically no advertisements so I’ll still rank them #1. 😛
  2. Fox News. “SPONSORED” in large red letters.
  3. ABC News. “ADVERTISEMENT” in bold black font above ads.
  4. Yahoo News. Ads are clearly labeled “Sponsored.”
  5. The Christian Science Monitor. “About these ads” appears beneath ads.
  6. NBC News. Lower case, but placed top center.
  7. CNN. All-caps “ADVERTISEMENT” bottom center.
  8. The New Yorker. Faint, but not as bad as HP.
  9. Huffington Post. They have invented an invisible font!
  10. CBS News. They don’t bother labeling ads at all.

Ranking the sites in the middle of the spectrum is somewhat subjective. Fox News and ABC News provide the boldest, clearest labels for sponsored content, followed by Yahoo News. On the other end of the spectrum, The New Yorker’s font is weak, but it’s more legible than Huffington Post’s pathetic invisible font. Neither CBS News nor Al Jazeera seem to label sponsored content, however Al Jazeera is surprisingly ad free. There were no ads on the Al Jazeera site the first time I checked, and when I went back there was only one ad. If they had more than one or two ads, I would have put them on bottom with CBS.

Update #2 …

I didn’t think to check this earlier, but the “ADVERTISEMENT” label on the Huffington Post ad up there is more legible on my iPhone than it is on my computer. But that’s not the weird part: The weird part is that the word “Advertisement” actually appears twice, one of which I didn’t even notice on my computer. If you’re reading this on a computer, tilt the screen a little and zoom in if you can’t see the second “Advertisement.” It’s centered above “Buy LifeLock® Protection” and it’s a little lower than the more visible all-caps “ADVERTISEMENT.”

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2 Responses to Huffington Post vs. Fox News — Advertising Ethics

  1. Zach says:

    This is a very interesting issue in the world of communication ethics. I’m a student at Drury University and one of the topics we have been discussing is the ethics of lying. When someone thinks about lying, usually the only thing they think about is one person lying to another, but these ethics conversations can (and very well should be) applied to corporations as well. In a more general sense, whether or not lying is inherently unethical is, and probably always will be, a highly divisive topic. Some people believe deception is always unethical, but others believe it depends on the situation (Johannesen, R., Valde, K., & Whedbee, K.). There’s even dispute within the latter party of what guidelines to use to determine when lying could be okay. Some people believe that lying is permitable when it is either to save someone’s life or if it is over trivial matters. I see these website’s presentation of advertisement as a form of lying as they often try to deceive their readers into believing they aren’t advertisements. So the question becomes, do they fit any sort of guidelines that would make this deception ethical? Personally, I do not believe so. The goal they are trying to achieve does not aid anyone nor is it trivial. It is to get more money from these advertisers, which, while understandable, is not ethical. A better way to handle this situation could possibly be for them to be completely up front about advertising, as people who click would probably be interested in the product being advertised in the first place.

    Reference: Johannesen, R., Valde, K., & Whedbee, K. (2008). Ethics in Human Communication (6th ed.). Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful commentary.

      Personally, I think it is more honest to not label sponsored content at all than it is to label it with a microscopic font that is marginally darker than the background of the page. Huffington Post in particular annoys me in this regard, because I’ll swear that label used to be darker.

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