Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky
May 22, 2018
For more than a year now I have been warning journalists, and supporters of journalism's role in democracy, that journalism is under threat -- from forces that don't fully understand that role, or fear it. Now there is a new threat, apparently driven by lack of understanding and appreciation of our role by people running the world's primary information platform, Facebook.
Today, the leading social-media network is scheduled to implement a new policy that will undercut the ability of major newspapers, the primary finders of fact in our democratic republic, to promote their work and compete with less reliable sources of information.
The policy will "treat ads promoting political news coverage the same as political advocacy ads," report Mike Snider and Jessica Guynn of USA Today. For the sake of "combating the spread of political misinformation, all Facebook ads featuring political content will get a 'Paid for by' label and carry a disclaimer. . . . These political messaging labels would also appear on 'sponsored' posts that news organizations buy to amplify the reach of an article or video on the political news of the day."
So, a promotion of a deeply reported package of stories about the evolving views of Trump voters in the Upper Midwest, like chief correspondent Dan Balz of The Washington Post did recently, would get the same treatment on Facebook as promotions of the daily "throw it up against the wall and see what sticks" from liberal or conservative interest groups. It's ridiculous.
The policy "is a fundamental mischaracterization of journalism," David Chavern, head of the News Media Alliance, the main lobby for newspaper publishers, told Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg a letter. "Newsgathering and reporting about politics is not the same thing as advocacy or politics. By lumping journalism and issue advocacy together, Facebook is dangerously blurring the line between real reporting and propaganda, and threatening to undermine journalism’s ability to play its critical role in society as the fourth estate."
Chavern suggested negotiations and an alternative: "require disclosure from all advertisers on all advertising; exempt news in the ad-archiving and labeling process for political content; or label and archive news independently from politics and advocacy."
Campbell Brown, the former CNN reporter who heads up Facebook's news partnerships, initially defended the policy but "later said that the company recognized "news content about politics is different and we are working with publishers to develop the right approach," USA Today reports.
Let's hope those negotiations produce a different policy than Facebook plans to implement today. In a world where citizens increasingly have difficulty deciding what sources of news and information are trustworthy, "This treatment of quality news as political, even in the context of marketing, is deeply problematic," Chavern told Zuckerberg. "You are forcing publishers to make a choice between labeling that is fundamentally counter to who we are and what we do, or to walk back our presence on a dominant platform for news consumption and discovery. This will have the effect of elevating less credible news sources on Facebook, the exact opposite of your stated intent."