Is It a News Story or a Sales Pitch on Major News Sites?

We turn to news sites like CNBC, USA Today, CNN and many others for news stories written by seasoned reporters independent of the advertising sales side of these businesses. So, we can generally expect the stories we see on those sites not to be advertising in disguise, or somehow tempered by the writer’s knowledge that the subject of the story advertises on that site, right?

More and more, however, big name news sites are blurring the line between conventional news stories written by the site’s journalists, and what is called “commerce content.” The whole purpose of commerce content is to publish what look like news or feature stories but whose purpose is really to sell stuff to readers thereby allowing the site to earn a commission. All this is done under the aura of the well-known and trusted name of the news site on which these articles appear.

Here is an advertisement for CNN Underscored which reviews various products:



If you go to CNN Underscored directly, or from a search result, you will find a long list of stories such as ones about buying the best laptop, or finding the best cash back credit card.

CNN Underscored story

At the top of the site, however, there is a fine print disclaimer:

*MOUSE PRINT:

CNN Underscored is your guide to the everyday products and services that help you live a smarter, simpler and more fulfilling life. The content is created by CNN Underscored. CNN News staff is not involved. When you make a purchase, we receive revenue. [color added for emphasis]

That’s right. CNN (and the other sites mentioned below) typically use other writers and reporters to write these stories to help lead you to make a purchase and thus compensate the website’s publisher.

Interestingly, in its “About Us” section, CNN says that the Underscored staff doesn’t always test the products themselves but rather reads others’ reviews or other organizations’ test results as part of its research process.

Below is a Who’s Who of news media with either whole sections devoted to these sales pitches dressed up to look like regular consumer stories, or who intermingle commerce content or sponsored stories with legitimate news stories. Some do a better job than others in researching the subject matter of the story and thus provide a valuable service. Most of them do a relatively poor job in disclosing that they make money if you make a purchase from the links in their articles.

  • CNBC Select
  • USA Today Reviewed
  • New York Times Wirecutter
  • Forbes shopping
  • Yahoo! Life [certain stories]
  • Huffington Post Shopping Finds
  • Business Insider
  • BuzzFeed Shopping
  • Washington Post Brand Studio [sponsored content]
  • NBC News Brand Studio [sponsored content]
  • NBC News Shop Today
  • Tribune Publishing/BestReviews (Chicago Tribune, NY Daily News, Baltimore Sun, etc.)
  • MSN Travel/Points Guy

    So many news sites are now promoting links from which they can get paid that the Wall Street Journal has put a disclaimer at the end of some of its stories saying that it is NOT receiving any such compensation:

    *MOUSE PRINT:

    WSJ not being paid

    The trouble with these types of stories on many of the news websites is that they often are listed in Google News or Bing News when doing searches of news stories. So you have to look carefully at ANY news story to see if it is a regular news feature or a story designed to get you to buy a product or service.

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    8 thoughts on “Is It a News Story or a Sales Pitch on Major News Sites?”

    1. Wirecutter does disclose its connection and also does a pretty thorough review of the products it covers. I would keep that one at a much higher level than the others.

      Even Consumer Reports gets a small fee if you buy something you see reviewed there (it is prominantly disclosed).

      Edgar replies: Yes, Wirecutter probably does the best job of doing product reviews, but they, like the others, post only a very inconspicuous disclosure about commissions. As to Consumer Reports, we covered their use of affiliate links here.

    2. I agree here. If you like one of the blenders from the video do a separate search for it and screw them out of any money they would make.

    3. Didn’t you do this story (or one pretty close) a few months ago?

      Edgar replies: Gert, back in March we did a story solely about Business Insider writing ultra personal stories about the writer’s experience with a product or service. At that time, we introduced the term “commerce content.” Previously, as noted in the comments above, we looked at Oprah’s Favorite Things and Consumer Reports. Today’s story broadens the concept to show that many mainstream news media outlets are now writing these “commerce content” stories with not great disclosure most times.

    4. Wirecutter has a clear statement up at the top of the page that discloses how they make money. On mobile at least, it’s not small print, it’s almost as large a font as their logo. And takes more room.

      Edgar replies: Anthony, it renders differently on a computer:

      Wirecutter

      And since most people are attracted to a headline of a story and then continuing reading down the page, they will never see their disclosure.

    5. What really irked me about Amazon Prime days is how just about every website in existence had their lists of, for example, “20 of the best Amazon Prime Day items…hurry, before they sell out!” I’m totally convinced that the more commission these websites got from Amazon, the higher a given item appeared on their list. Or making it to the list in the first place. These so-called picks were rarely the least bit objective–they were totally commission driven.

    6. There’s nothing wrong with using affiliate links as long as it doesn’t influence the content of the article. The problem is that more and more reviews aren’t really reviews. They’re just rehashes of manufacturer marketing material masquerading as reviews. The junktification of the web is turning me to paying for content from sites like Consumer Reports.

      Some Wirecutter articles have been really informing. Oddly, I rarely agree with their picks. But I’ve found the article comments invaluable to lead me to what should have been the pick.

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