When you go to a respected news site online, you expect to find links to many different stories that the publisher has on its own website, and that it has found elsewhere and recommends.
Reuters, one of the two leading newswire services, is no exception. When you click on a particular story link, you are taken to a page with that story. Surrounding the story are various lists of popular stories, recommendations of other stories, and conventional advertisements.
Here is such a page captured on October 27, with red outlines added for emphasis [see full size]:
In the left column is a box entitled “Recommended,” where various video stories are listed. [Note: screenshots below were captured prior to October 27 on a different page of Reuters and sent to Reuters for comment.] One would naturally believe that Reuters’ editors have chosen this content as their recommendations to readers.
In the bottom right-hand corner of that box is a tiny question mark. If you click on it, an explanation pops up:
It says that a firm called “Outbrain,” not Reuters, has selected these videos and they were paid to place these links here and make these recommendations.
Similarly, further down the page, there is a box with a list of stories that says “More from Reuters” on the left, and another list of stories captioned “From Around the Web” on the right. That little question mark appears inconspicuously in the corner again.
The same disclosure is made about Outbrain there too, and one might believe that the stories in the right column are Outbrain’s recommendations (if you knew enough to click the link), but you would never imagine that the stories on the left where it says “More from Reuters” might also be paid links. (No matter what story you click on in that box, the status bar of your browser indicates that link first goes through Outbrain.)
In all there are six sections on this page (see red boxes) where news stories are linked but where that content is not actually recommended by Reuters. Someone has bought advertising space on the Reuters website to promote those stories (or the advertisements that might be on those pages). While sections labeled “Sponsored Content” should signal the reader that this is really an advertisement, other sections with just question mark or a little logo, do not clearly convey a similar message.
The Federal Trade Commission has worked with Google, for example, to ensure that paid search results that are really advertisements, be completely segregated from actual search results, be labeled as “ads,” and in some cases be on a contrasting background. Don’t news organizations have the same obligation not to misrepresent the content on their webpages and to better distinguish paid links to news stories from actual recommendations of the host site?
Mouse Print* sent Reuters detailed questions regarding the concerns raised by their sponsored content boxes, but received no response.
The Federal Trade Commission is said to be planning a roundtable discussion next month about this issue, which is referred to as “native advertising” or “sponsored content.”
[Please note: Reuters is but one of many news sites that feature these story recommendation boxes (CNN, Time, and 90,000 other sites use Outbrain), and Outbrain is just one of the firms that deals in sponsored content.]