Ethical concerns about holes in the news/ad wall

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The wall that once existed between news and advertising has many gaping holes in it.

The Bulldog Reporter’s Daily Dog website says that some readers of the Charlotte News & Observer were bothered by the paper’s handling of two pieces on the GlaxoSmithKline drug company this past Sunday.

The website says: “Big pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline got a lot of attention in last Sunday’s News & Observer in Charlotte. On the front page was a story headlined, “GSK scientist pursues Alzheimer’s treatment,” that featured the pharmaceutical company’s efforts to produce a breakthrough drug to treat or prevent the disease, reports Ted Vaden, a staff writer for the daily.

On the front of the Classified section was another story titled, “It takes a vast team to introduce a new drug.” The story focused on the GSK drug Valtrex, used to treat genital herpes and other afflictions.

Even though one GSK story was in the news section and the other in advertising, their conjunction caught the attention of some readers.

“I was just blown away, as a consumer advocate, by the GlaxoSmithKline one-two punch,” said Adam Searing, a healthcare advocate with the N.C. Justice Center. “The first was the real puff piece about an Alzheimer’s treatment that’s two or three years away. Then I opened the Sunday Classified and it seems like Glaxo has bought half the classified section, and it’s not even identified as advertising. I don’t think it serves your high standards to allow someone like Glaxo to have such an influence on the newspaper.”

The paper says the Classified story was not an ad. It just looked that way to some. They say it was actually a story written by a freelancer hired by the advertising department. (Doesn’t that make it an ad?)

A North Carolina ethics prof said, “I don’t think the line between advertising and editorial is as clear in your readers’ minds as it is in your offices.”

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