From the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics:
Journalists should distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.
Ah, that stern creed we all learned in J-school. "Label advertising accordingly," we were taught. "It'll keep us credible."
But, mostly, online news sites did an OK job of labeling advertising. Now, though, there's an emerging problem with the way this is done: News sites are not taking into account non-graphical browsers and the ramifications of relying on graphics alone to distinguish advertising content.
An example: FOXNews.com displays a section of advertising links toward the bottom of its home page. Here's what that looks like in a modern graphical browser. (I've included the parts of the page immediately before and after the ads, to give context.)
The ad section's strong graphical resemblance to the other (news) sections is ethically questionable -- and flies in the face of the established convention that advertising should appear in a different design/typeface -- but that's not the problem I'd like to point out here.
The problem I'd like to point out here becomes obvious when you view this page in an unconventional browser. Here's a screenshot of the same section of FOXNews.com, as viewed in Microsoft Mobile Explorer Emulator, which
"simulate[s] the activity of using a browser on a mobile phone", according to its documentation:
There's little to distinguish those advertising links from the genuine news links. Yes, astute readers will correctly suspect "FREE debt assistance" is advertising, but what of "Quality Dental Plans"? What of "Got Student Loans?"? The former could very well be the headline of a story in the health section; the latter sounds like a fluffy feature headline. An unsuspecting reader might see it, follow the link and be surprised (and irritated) when he or she realizes it's an ad. Or, worse yet, a reader might read the subsequent advertising content indiscriminately, believing Fox News -- not a paid advertiser -- was providing that information as a fair and accurate news outlet.
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Here, again, we see no difference between the news links and the advertising links.