Media Literacy: What’s Payola Journalism?

Media literacy is perhaps one of the most important issues facing us today.

Just last week, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, donated a whack of money to the News Literacy Project, an educational resource that teaches students to think critically about the news they consume every day. U.S. schools have also started teaching media literacy programs in an effort to fight false content online.

At Arke, we’re optimistic about the role digital media can play in our society. It has the power to bring us closer together; provide us with useful, relevant content; and it can connect us to life-changing opportunities.

But we’re also realists. And we recognize that there are some bad actors out there using digital media for evil instead of good. Ad fraudsters, proliferators of fake news, and hackers. The people gaming the system to benefit themselves or the shadowy organizations they represent. They’re hard to pin down if you don’t know what to look for.

Which is why we’re big on media literacy. We feel that education is the key to shedding light on this problem and becoming part of the solution.

What’s Payola Journalism?

Payola Journalism epitomizes the sleazy side of online marketing. It’s when a marketer approaches a news publisher, typically an editor or journalist that works there, and offers payola for positive coverage, undermining the five core principles of journalism: accuracy, independence, impartiality, humanity, and accountability.

You might be shocked to learn that payola journalism is pretty common. Actually, I’m willing to bet that you actively read content from a publisher that’s engaged in the practice. You might even have their site open in another tab.

The Outline has done plenty of digging on this. In December, they did an investigative piece with a follow-up over a week ago. They implicated publishers like Mashable, Inc, Business Insider, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur, Forbes, and Fast Company

There’s no indication that these organizations actively engage in payola journalism. In fact, most of them have standards and ethics to provide their editorial teams with oversight. It’s only a few journalists and editors who take part.

How to Kill the Shill

So, how do we fight payola journalism?

By being aware that this kind of stuff happens, for one. It’s also important to think about why a piece of content exists. What’s its objective? Just as an example, this article wants to be informative. That’s its objective.

So, transparency matters. From the very first sentence, a credible article will define its communication objectives and the rest of the piece will be consistent with that. If it’s not, then be cautious. Another thing to look out for—editorial standards.

Does a news publisher hold itself accountable to a defined set of guidelines?   

Even if it does, that’s not to say that individual writers don’t. Remember: there are bad actors everywhere. But those that do, at the very least, are holding themselves responsible for providing objective, unbiased news. If they don’t, feel free to contact them, or use social media to directly mention individual journalists or editors. We get exactly what we ask for. Which is why it’s so important to demand better.

Also, look at the byline. Has a certain journalist consistently written positive advertorial? If so, you should really wonder why.

Finally, look at how a publisher handles their marketing editorial. Do they blur the lines between promotional content and news? Or do they demarcate certain content types, for example sponsored content? The clear separation of church and state is critical, so definitely look out for it.