Is it news, ad or informercial?

The line between news and advertising is going, going . . .

As newspapers and broadcast stations scramble for new sources of advertising dollars, are old ethical standards getting lost in the shuffle?

By Doreen Carvajal

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 4 (April 1991), pp. 1, 8.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.


The channel is tuned to Philadelphia’s KYW-TV and the warm voice of a local television medical reporter invites viewers to ponder a serious matter of the heart. Their own.

For the next sixty minutes, the hosts of a special prime-time television show called “Health Test” lead viewers on an exploration of heart disease and health tips. They interview recovering patients from Albert Einstein Medical Center. They seek advice from cardiac specialists at Albert Einstein Medical Center. And occasionally the host rattles off a telephone hotline for questions: (800)-EINSTEIN.

So answer this “Health Test”: Is this news? Is this a commercial? Is this the future?

“The entire program is produced with our involvement from start to finish with our doctors, our patients. We certainly have thrown out ideas. Some were taken, some fell flat,” said Annemarie Armstrong, director of public relations for Einstein, the program’s sponsor. “I have not seen any other television station come together in quite this way, but given the economics of television, perhaps it will change. I do think we are on the leading edge.”

Given economic pressures, television, magazines and newspapers have been casting for new forms of revenue and in that struggle ethical standards can become elastic.

For the industry of information, the present state of the economy is quite possibly the worst in two decades.

Newspaper executives watched the advertising market ebb after the 1987 stock market crash and then dry up in 1988 and 1989 as recession began to take hold. For traditional television, the story was even bleaker: loss of momentum, market share and money.

As a result, media are focusing on ways to expand the old advertising base and in some cases cozier relationships between content and advertising have developed.

Some of it is clearly beneficial for the struggling companies. Some of it is not so clearly beneficial for the consumer who is expected to distinguish advertising from news.

It’s not always easy to see through the blur of business.

Omni, a consumer magazine on science and technology, devoted its November cover to first-time advertiser Motorola although the picture had no connections to the stories inside. Through a cut-out window of the cover, shined a silver hologram of a hand gripping a telephone. The pitch was the future of global communications.

In the euphoria after the end of the Gulf war, the tabloid Philadelphia Daily News splashed its cover with “MILLER TIME — First Wave of Troops

Back Home from Gulf.” On page three, a local columnist declared the victory celebrations: “Miller Time, USA.” On page 28, an advertisement appeared for a cash contest sponsored by the Daily News — and Miller High Life.

The Miami Herald floats the idea of selling advertising space to companies that want to run verbatim news releases.

Last year, the Federal Trade Commission filed six complaints against television stations that blended news formats with advertising in an increasingly popular hybrid — infomercials. Typically, the infomercials followed familiar and trusted news formats: a consumer self-help program, a talk show, a documentary, a news magazine.

The FTC’s most serious complaint involved a $1.5 million fine against Twin Star Productions of Scottsdale, Ariz., which was selling “Foliplexx,” a baldness remedy, “Y-Bron,” a male impotence treatment and “EuroTrym,” an appetite suppressant patch endorsed by Ronald Reagan’s son Michael. The FTC charged Twin Star’s product claims were unsubstantiated and the infomercials misled viewers by masquerading as consumer shows rather than paid advertising.

“Some of these firms use the infomercial as a way to hide the fact that they are selling something and to give the sales effort more credibility than it deserves. That’s when it gets bad,” said Herbert Rotfeld, an associate professor of marketing at Auburn University in Alabama. Rotfeld and Patrick Parsons, an assistant professor of communications at Penn State University, launched a study of more than 1,000 television news managers to determine the ethical divide between advertising and news.

Their research showed the gap was as wide as the Snake River Canyon; anything could be rationalized.

“They were aware of the ethical difficulties associated with these infomercials and had misgivings about running them. But ultimately they ran because the economic pressures overcame their concerns and often the concerns were rationalized away by saying the consumer can tell infomercials — we have an obligation to our stockholders,” said Parsons.

Rotfeld said he interviewed or received survey answers from more than 1,000 people, including cable news executives and television station managers. Everyone believed they were dutifully following universal standards, he said. But no one was.

“I talked to different television stations in the top 100 markets,” Rotfeld said. “One says, ‘It’s our responsibility to look at these very closely; we won’t accept things that look like news.’ Later, talking to a comparable officer in a similar station: ‘We’re not in a top-50 market, we basically take everything except autographed pictures of Jesus Christ.”

The blend of news and commercials dates back to a change in federal guidelines in 1984. The Reagan administration dropped a requirement that limited the time television stations could devote to commercials. That spawned home shopping networks that are 100-percent advertising along with half-hour and hour-long infomercials. Generally, such shows were confined to the ghetto of early morning hours on cable and UHF broadcast channels. But lately they have started to proliferate on regular broadcast television.

“The whole nature of television has changed from free outlets to VCRs, to satellites. So you have to change the way you do business,” said Jerry Eaton, former chief of programming for KYW in Philadelphia and now head of KYW-TV Enterprises, a new division designed to create programming for individual advertisers. “It’s a different relationship between client and advertiser and television,” he said. “My goal is to marry the needs of advertiser with the needs of the viewer.”

Recently, Eaton’s division shot a pilot for a new half-hour program dubbed “On-Sale.” It’s a talk show format aimed at shopaholics and features bargains from local businesses that pay for the publicity. The show does not have a scheduled debut date yet, but there have been public reports that it could replace the station’s floundering noon news, the 5:30 p.m. newscast or both.

The same division has also created two hour-long medical shows sponsored by Einstein Hospital and hosted by a medical reporter who appeared in the station’s regular newscasts.

Eaton said producers have to be open with viewers about the programming by airing tag lines. “There’s no percentage in fooling the viewer,” he said. “There’s nothing sinister about it. It’s useful to viewers and useful to advertisers.”

But there were no tag lines for the station’s first “Health Test” show although announcements were made about the hospital’s sponsoring role.

Keith Love, a Los Angeles Times political reporter turned corporate executive for the McClatchy Newspapers chain in Sacramento, argues that a new appreciation of advertisers is not entirely unhealthy.

“The newspaper business has finally woken up to the fact that they cannot take these things for granted,” said Love, who is an assistant to the vice president for operations at McClatchy.

That may mean running travel section stories about cruises during the same season when people can actually board the ships and advertisers are running their promotions, according to Love.

“But if any advertiser gets the sense that a paper is for sale,” Love warned, “then you’ve given it away.”

For a response from Philadelphia Daily News Editor Zachary Stahlberg, see Letter to the editor.”