FYI Complaints We Heard: News vs advertising – May 1, 2019

Distinguishing between news and advertising in print and online

One of the regular categories of complaints to the NNC involves the distinction between news and advertising. While standard practice consists of clear distinctions between advertising and journalism, emerging niche markets and new forms of sponsored content sometimes make these distinctions more difficult for readers to identify.

The following complaints, clearly, do not indicate a breach of journalistic standards; instead, they present valuable questions from engaged readers, and illustrate some of the challenges associated with distinguishing news from advertising.

  1. Cannabis in question: Navigating industry news or “verticals” online

A recent complaint to the NNC turned the concern about distinguishing news from advertising on its head.

The complainant perceived front page National Post content as advertising masquerading as news, and further pointed to multiple articles labeled as news that, on a click, took the reader to what he described as “puff piece” advertising for the industry.

In fact, the news organization responded, the articles were bona fide news stories.

In this case, the articles were about cannabis and were found under an “Around our Network” column on the news organization’s home or ‘front’ page. The National Post suggested that confusion could arise from the reader going from the Post site to a ‘vertical,’ or the digital equivalent to another section of the newspaper.

The news article in question linked to a standalone Postmedia-operated editorial site. This particular vertical, called “GrowthOp,” aggregated content about cannabis and published it alongside Postmedia original content. The news organization explained to the complainant that the section targeted a broad demographic and included a range of content aimed at all aspects of cannabis, from health to business to lifestyle content. The editorial pieces were written by a regular freelancer, whose job was to deliver interesting, trending pieces about cannabis news. One, for example, was about new provincial guidelines while another was about a controversial stance taken by an American legislator. Like its print counterpart, the section also contained sponsored content, which was labeled as such.

The NNC’s view is that articles about cannabis are newsworthy in light of new federal legislation and the economic and social impacts of legalization. There was no breach of standards in presenting this ‘vertical’ section or the links to related news articles.


  1. Advertising remedies: Identifying sponsored content from news articles

The NewsMedia Council heard recently from a reader upset about what she took as a news article that had appeared from time to time in her community paper, the Vaughan Citizen. The article promoted back pain relief and referred to a local chiropractor. Similar articles by the same writer featuring different health professionals have appeared across the country.

In reviewing the article in question, the NewsMedia Council found that while it read in some parts like an information article, there were several readily apparent features that distinguished it as advertising:

  • a statement at the top saying “Brought to you by Atlantis Wellness Centre”
  • a different style of typeface than other news articles in the paper
  • unlike the case for other reporters, no contact information was provided about the writer
  • the article was set apart by a heavy black border
  • the article urged readers to call about the product, and offered a promotional code

Each of these factors distinguishes a news article from sponsored content or advertising, and taken together sent a clear message that the article is not a news article.

In the NNC’s view, the paper adhered to best practice in presenting this sponsored content. Still, the reader was upset to have spent money and time on remedies that she found ineffective, and was upset that “news” did not lead to improvement for her situation. This unfortunate experience provided a glimpse at the face of those the news media has to consider in making decisions about the importance of distinguishing news from advertising.


  1. Wrappers: Front page advertising instead of front page news


Complaint about “false fronts” and “wrappers” provoke some of the most livid complaints we hear.

False fronts present advertising on pages 1, 2 and sometimes page 3, while “wrappers” are advertising that appears on pages 1 and 2, as well as the back page and inside back page. Both have long been advertising options in the battle to attract consumer eyes and are commonly used by numerous papers. However, the Crag & Canyon’s false front during a political campaign drew a complaint from a reader who didn’t recognize the practice, and felt it provided no opportunity for readers to learn more detail about the named political party. The complainant admitted that each page clearly stated it was a paid advertisement, and recognized that the NNC found no breach of standards in the format. Still, he was unhappy with what, to him, was a blurring of news and advertising.

These reader complaints remind the NNC and the news media about the imperative to distinguish sponsored content from journalism. Readers can no longer count on the front page being a front page of news, and they don’t want to be misled about what is an informative news story as opposed to a pitch to consumers.

The onus is on readers to be alert to signs of advertising, but also on the news media to provide clear distinction between news and advertising.

For more information on this issue, you can also read our position paper on branded content here.