Don’t Lie to Your Readers

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

The Atlantic is a generally well-respected news magazine, with a popular website to which this very site often links. On Monday, however, TheAtlantic.com published “sponsor content” which very clearly ran afoul of journalistic ethics. Specifically, the website featured a post extolling the many great accomplishments of Scientology in 2012, a screenshot of which can be seen below1:

The Atlantic screenshot
How fake does that background look?

Readers around the world were taken aback by this page, in no small part due to Scientology’s extremely checkered history, particularly when it comes to the Internet. The content of the “post” was little more then a press release for Scientology wrapped up in the guise of an Atlantic article, and the indication of “Sponsor Content” was far from large. Far worse than the text of the post itself, however, was the comments section. Though they had an identical appearance to the comments seen on all other (non-sponsor) pages on TheAtlantic.com, these comments were heavily moderated, with only pro-Scientology comments being allowed. Simply put, the entire thing was an affront to everything for which journalism stands.

One can only hope that this does not represent a new trend in otherwise-quality sources of journalism. Thankfully, writer and editor Erin Kissane has done yeoman’s work in spelling out just why this whole thing is so deeply troubling. Her entire post is well worth reading, but here she is on the aforementioned comments:

But this all pales in comparison to the simple betrayal of the reader’s trust. When you fail to explicitly state that you’re blocking and deleting comments critical of your subject and your publication, you imply that you aren’t—especially when every other comments section on your website allows negative comments. You are presenting a tiny selection of comments by supporters of your client as the entire conversation. You are telling a lie

Of course, with a simple spoof, The Onion has nailed it as usual.


Footnotes:

  1. The full content of that post is archived here, via the excellent Poynter.org. Unfortunately, it seems the comments were not captured.


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