The Press Council has issued a rebuke over the publication of sponsored content on Stuff and nzherald.co.nz that masquerades as news stories, noting that this practice is a breach of the professional standards expected of a trusted media and that some of the 'stories' published are simply inaccurate.
The Press Council has undertaken consideration of this complaint on the basis that if material is being published in a way that makes it look as if it is genuine news it should, at least, be held to the same standards as news content.
The Council is also alarmed at the way news and advertising content has been mingled together beyond the control of news sites' editors.
The decision relates to native advertising material that is dressed up as editorial content and placed at the bottom of each story page. In the 'stories' covered in this particular complaint, completely fictional characters – a Levin man, Paraparaumu kid and Christchurch taxi driver – were purported to have made considerable sums from investing in Bitcoin. Viewers were attracted to the material because it was localised to their hometowns and presented as news headlines. On accessing the supposed articles, readers were taken to Bitcoin promotional material.
While the publications argue the content is advertising and they use visual cues to distinguish this paid content from independent news, the Council has ruled those cues fall short of international best practice, as does the mixing of news and advertising. The content is so clearly intended to look like news that the Council decided to accept the complaint and consider its impact on journalism standards in this country. As a result, we are urging the news sites to harden the lines between news and advertising, to ensure transparency and protect the New Zealand media's hard-won reputation for independent and high quality journalism. Readers deserve nothing less.
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NZME's changes as a result of the Press Council adjudication
While NZME respects the adjudication of the Press Council, it is disappointed that the opportunity was not taken to consult with the relevant parties and the industry to discuss how transparency for readers in respect of advertising could be achieved, as well as considering the commercial realities for publishers today.
NZME and the New Zealand Herald, like other publishers across the industry, rely on the revenue that advertising generates to ensure that we can continue to deliver the latest breaking news to its readership from the best journalists in New Zealand. Native advertising, when properly disclosed, helps us to achieve this.
Despite our belief that we were complying with international standards, NZME has carefully considered the points of the Press Council and swiftly made changes to the Outbrain widget which appears on the New Zealand Herald digital site. These changes include:
A physical separation of content which is:
• Reticulated within the New Zealand Herald site (such as other, related stories published by the New Zealand Herald), under a header called "Recommended"; and
• External links provided by Outbrain, under a header called "Paid Content" (or similar);
• Any images related to external links will continue to show the external website name immediately below the image.
In a second phase, NZME is developing a link which will appear under the "Paid Promoted Content" header, which will allow consumers to be taken to a New Zealand Herald hosted page which explains what Paid Promoted Content is, and the relationship between this content and New Zealand Herald content (which NZME has editorial control over).
These changes may be adjusted slightly in future.
While it is important for NZME to commercially find ways to bring our audience the best content, we appreciate that our audience should be fully informed of the nature of content they view.