FYI Complaints We Heard: Distinguishing sponsored content from news – June 26, 2019

The NNC mediates complaints and issues decisions on breaches of journalistic standards. In cases where there is no evidence of a breach, readers may still have questions about a journalistic issue. Part of what we do at the NNC is to provide explanations to those questions. Here are some of the issues we’ve heard and how we handled them.

JUNE 26, 2019 – The National NewsMedia Council recently reviewed a complaint about a supplement in the May 6, 2019 Star Metro Vancouver.

The complainant raised questions about bias and labelling of the eight-page insert, and asked “why such publications can happen in Canada.”

NNC staff examined the print-only supplement and found it was clearly labeled on each page as a “Supplement to the Star Metro Vancouver.” Please see the image below for reference.

The term ‘supplement’ is widely understood as a publication with a secondary role—a separate section devoted to a special subject inserted into a publication that is produced independent from the newsroom. In that way, it is understood to be different from the news organization’s regular news coverage.

In addition to the top-of-page labelling as “supplement,” all but the first page had a clearly visible banner at the bottom of the page stating “Information office of Qindao Municipal People’s Government.” It was the view of NNC staff that a reasonable reader would understand that the banner would indicate the sponsor of the supplement and its content.

In reviewing the articles in the supplement, it was readily apparent that the varied topics focused on development, events, and industry in the city of Quindao, China. The writing was promotional in nature, as would be expected in a sponsored supplement.

The image above shows the appropriately labelled supplement to the May 6, 2019, Star Metro Vancouver for reference. Text is intentionally blurred.

The NNC found that while the material in the supplement was highly focused, it is not required to meet the test for bias. The writing did not show evidence of attempt to deceive or defraud. Presenting material with a strong focus on one side of a product or event, while unacceptable in news reporting, is not a breach of standards for sponsored content.

The NNC’s mandate is to ensure that news and opinion writing is clearly distinguished from advertising and sponsored content. In this case, best practice was followed as the content was in a separate section, labelled at the top of the page as a supplement, and the source of the sponsored content was identified at the bottom of each page.

For these reasons, the NNC found Star Metro was responsible about distinguishing sponsored content from news and found no breach of journalistic standards.

The basis for the complainant’s question about why the publication was allowed was not clarified and in any case the NNC does not comment on a member’s choice of editorial or advertising content.

However, it is important to note that Canada’s Charter of Rights protects freedom of expression and media freedom, which includes the freedom to receive information.