When Aubrey Belford started work as a special correspondent for Reuters in Southeast Asia, his new colleagues in the Bangkok bureau were working on a series of articles that would earn them a 2014 Pulitzer Prize. One piece exposed how certain members of the Thai navy and police were involved in the trafficking of Rohingya migrants from Myanmar into the seafood industry. This, along with another Pulitzer-winning series by the Associated Press, helped put pressure on Thailand’s leaders to do more to tackle trafficking.
In November, Belford came across another article on Reuters’s website about seafood slavery in the country. This one struck a different tone; paid for by Thailand’s military junta, it touted a “sea change in ethical marine commerce” brought about by reforms that included “stringent measures to protect the rights of workers.”
Belford is firmly against the use of native advertising—paid stories that look and feel like a publication’s own journalism—but this piece was especially egregious, he felt, because it gave space to a government to whitewash abuses on one of the same platforms on which they were exposed.
“This is wrong no matter who the client is,” Belford, who left Reuters in 2016, tells CJR. “Corporations and democratic governments are also the subjects of Reuters coverage, and any native advertising in their favor would similarly muddy independent news reporting. But it’s even worse when the advertiser is a government that has credibly been tied to abuses.”
In a statement to CJR, Reuters says that the department behind the ad, Reuters Plus, operates independently of its journalists. “All Reuters Plus content on Reuters.com is clearly labeled to differentiate it from editorial content,” the statement says. (Stephen Adler, Reuters’s editor in chief, is chairman of the advisory board of CJR.)
The piece is marked “sponsored” at the top, followed by a line identifying the content as “provided by” Thailand’s foreign ministry. A line at the end in smaller, fainter font states that the article was not produced by Reuters journalists. Reuters has a section on the homepage dedicated to sponsored content, and stories sponsored by the Thai government are mingled with news stories in Google search results about the topic. But research suggests that many are either oblivious to these disclaimers or do not know what they mean.
“It’s not very likely that the typical reader would understand that this is a sponsored story,” Bartosz Wojdynski, director of the Digital Media Attention and Cognition Lab at the University of Georgia, says. “Typically somewhere between a tenth and a quarter of readers get that what they read was actually an advertisement.”
Most of the time, readers skip over the page furniture at the head of an article and start reading from the first paragraph, he says.
“When you strip away all the pretense,” Belford adds, “the reason these advertorials exist is to fool at least some readers into thinking they are legitimate editorial content, or at least imbued with the rigor of Reuters reporting.”
Concerns about ethics have done little to curtail the rapid growth of native advertising in recent years. News providers got 20 percent of their ad revenues from native content in 2017, according to a global study of 148 publishers by the Native Advertising Institute and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers. By 2021 executives expect that to increase to 36 percent.
The reason these advertorials exist is to fool at least some readers into thinking they are legitimate editorial content, or at least imbued with the rigor of Reuters reporting.
But the Thai seafood ad stands out from others, because it is a response to a PR crisis, and because Reuters’s own reporting played a role in causing that crisis. One potential benefit of publishing a counter message on the same platform where the bad publicity originated, Wojdynski says, is having positive content appear alongside negative stories in search results.
For Wojdynski, the fact that Reuters itself has covered this issue makes the ad even more noteworthy than other paid stories. He notes that early last year the agency’s charitable arm, the Thomson Reuters Foundation, published pieces pointing out that traffickers were still forcing people into the seafood industry despite reforms. “Publishing this sponsored content without the conflicting context provided by Reuters’s own reporting on this issue seems pretty unethical to me,” he says.
After Belford and other journalists criticized the article on Twitter in early December, it disappeared from Reuters’ website. But then it went back up again, without explanation, later that week. Reuters’s statement does not say why the article went offline.
Not everyone was put off by the piece. Andy Hall, a British migrant rights campaigner who has run afoul of powerful interests in Thailand, says if the government wants to counter bad publicity by highlighting positive news, that’s fair game. “It’s not a problem for me,” he says.
The commotion over the sponsored piece raises questions not just about the ethics of native advertising, but about news providers’ broader relationships with governments. Where and how should publications draw the line when taking money from governments? Should certain clients be completely off limits, and if so how does one decide which ones?
Erin Schauster, assistant professor at CU Boulder’s College of Media, Communication and Information, tells CJR that when it comes to advertising contracts, the focus should be less on the the type of client than the content of the message. “Much like advertising certain products is considered harmful, such as tobacco in the US, so too is advertising certain messages and agendas,” she says.
But deciding which messages are harmful requires making political and moral judgements, even if they’re unacknowledged. Are US military recruitment ads harmful? A left-leaning outlet might think so, while an establishment newspaper might not, even if it had published stories detailing alleged crimes by that military.
Belford echoes Schauster’s point that running the wrong kind of ad can be worse than dealing with the wrong type of client: “It’s an unfortunate reality that media outlets need money to operate. But there is a world of difference between running a clearly labeled advertisement and this kind of misleading ‘native’ content.”