Gennadiy Chernov, School of Journalism, University of Regina
David Koranda, University of Oregon, School of Journalism and Communication
About the authors
Gennadiy Chernov is an Associate Professor at School of Journalism, University of Regina. His research interests lie in communication studies, psychological mechanisms of media effects, and commercialization of television news, with specialization in experimental studies of agenda-setting theory.
David Koranda is a Senior Instructor at School of Journalism and Communication, University of Oregon. He worked in Advertising for 27 years, working on international, national and regional accounts. He studied Business at Wilkes University and Advertising at the University of Oregon (BA & BS). He teaches classes in Communication Planning, Advertising Strategy, and Account Management and Campaigns. Davis is currently serving on the Academic Board of American Advertising Federation.
The current study explores how television news managers and viewers define the encroachment of commercialization into the news and whether or not they find it disturbing. It was hypothesized that the news directors have a tendency to accept commercial influence if it comes with other news values, and audiences are getting accustomed to the news commercialization. In-depth interviews were conducted with news directors of American and Canadian television stations, and viewers’ attitudes were assessed in the discussion of two focus groups. The results demonstrated that the news directors have a broad latitude of acceptance of what is considered to be commercial elements in the news. The focus group participants did not seem to be alarmed by the commercial influence on the news. The study may lead to the conclusion that commercial influence in local television news is not only significant, but it is also becoming accepted by both professionals and viewers.
The phenomenon of “stealth advertising” in local television news has recently become the focus of several studies both in the United States (Upshaw, Chernov & Koranda, 2007; Wood, Nelson, Cho & Yaros, 2004) and Canada (Chernov, 2010). This interest stemmed from previous theoretical works that posit a growing evidence of the blending of commercial speech with the information of public interest (Soley, 2002; Powers, 2001; Goodman, 2006; Piety, 2008).
The study of the “stealth advertising” phenomenon in local news led to the identification of the scope and the reasons of such commercial intrusion (Powers, 2001, Chernov, 2010; Upshaw, Chernov & Koranda, 2007). The key factor is an economic pressure to survive in the competitive atmosphere. Especially, this phenomenon affected smaller news stations to a greater extent than larger ones. The other factor that has an impact on the commercial intrusion in the television news is a broader latitude of acceptance of the commercial content, if it is packaged and framed as a newsworthy report that can be interpreted as coverage of an issue of public importance (Chernov, 2010).
The above findings, however, did not reflect the attitudes of the audience toward well-documented news commercialization. Academics’ concern with the compromising influence of the commercial content in the news is based on the supposed influence of “stealth advertising” on the quality of the news as the source of information in democratic societies (Soley, 2002). The question is whether the audience is aware of this phenomenon, and if it does, is it a concern for the news viewers? Previous findings dealt with the commercialization in television news in the USA and Canada separately, but the converging evidence of the ubiquity of this phenomenon makes it interesting to see how the editorial gatekeepers, the news directors (NDs), and the audience treat the commercialization of the news simultaneously.
This empirical study deals with one aspect of the phenomenon of news commercialization, the rise of “stealth advertising”. All these findings led to the following hypotheses:
1) News directors interpret very loosely what is commercial influence in a news story and they are ready to tolerate such influences under certain circumstances.
2) The television news viewers accept such commercial influences in the news because they are accustomed to the commercial environment in which the news operates.
To test these hypotheses, in-depth interviews were conducted with the news directors of two American television stations and one Canadian television station as well as focus group discussions. According to Rakow (2011), “Interviews and focus groups are the heart of qualitative research in many disciplines, including communication” (p. 424). The in-depth interview method was already tested in similar studies, and proved to be an effective tool to understand day-to-day editorial decisions (Johnson, 2002). Previous studies established the quantitative dimension of the encroachment of commercial content in the news, but qualitative evaluation of this process can be better explained by the use of focus groups and in-depth interviews as methodological tools. The purpose of the current interviews was to investigate to what extent the news directors allow some commercial content to enter the news, and under what circumstances they are ready to broaden the latitude of acceptance of such messages. Here are the questions that capture the ND’s assessment of commercial penetration into the news:
1) How would you define a business story?
2) Would you run a story that is commercially oriented and if so under what circumstances?
3) Would you run a story where the charity event or support of a community initiative described and the sponsor of the event is a well-known auto dealer or a specific company?
4) Have you ever met, in your practice, a product placement instance outside usual commercial slots, e.g., within the content of a news story?
5) Have you ever run a story that supported local businesses?
6) Does or has your station run segments “supported by” that is considered to be a part of a commercial slot in the news?
7) Is there a certain day of a week where you would be more inclined to run a story with commercially tinted material on air?
The interviews lasted about three hours with each ND and included follow-up clarifications for the original questions to get in-depth feedback from the interviewees. The NDs were assured that their answers would not be distorted or modified without their knowledge. The viewers’ attitudes were assessed in the discussion with two focus groups: one in Eugene, USA, and another in Saskatoon, Canada. These discussions led to a more pronounced understanding of what participants think is legitimate commercial content. The focus groups helped reveal attitudes and interpretations of different communities of media audiences, (Lunt & Livingstone, 1996; Stewart & Shamdasani, 2007). In other words, the purpose of the focus groups was to gather groups of people to discuss a specific topic with the participation of a moderator.
The focus group participants were randomly selected from those who replied to newspaper advertisements published two times several weeks prior to the discussions. First, advertisements were published in the Register Guard, Eugene local newspaper for a general audience, and second, similar ads were posted in the “Star Phoenix”, the largest newspaper in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The advertisement stated that participants were being sought to watch and discuss the intrusion of commercial messages into the news with the compensation of $25 promised. Twelve individuals responded to the advertisement in Eugene, and nine (3 men and 6 women, aged 35 to 54) could make it and attend the discussion session itself. The moderator described the purpose of the discussion, and explained the rights of participants underlying a voluntary character of participation. All the participants read and signed a consent form confirming that they wanted to take part in the discussion. The discussion started with the moderator’s demonstrating a few segments from early evening local news, which contained commercially influenced materials. Then, the following set of questions was asked:
1. Describe how often do you watch local television news?
2. What kind of stories do you like most?
3.1. Do you think that some television stories resemble commercials?
3.2. If so can you recall having seen such stories recently?
3.3. Do you think that such stories are acceptable? Why or why not?
4. What is your attitude toward stories that depict businesses that sponsor or support the communities, in which they operate?
5. What is your attitude toward the stories that describe the successes of certain businesses?
6. What is your attitude toward stories that inform the audience about products and services of specific businesses?
7. What is your attitude toward the billboards, (introductions or closing) claiming that a particular segment of the news was brought to you by a certain business or company?
8. Are there any kinds of news stories that make you switch to another station’s newscast?
Some of these questions were modified due to the nature of the focus group and the research in order to follow different turns in the discussion. The discussion was recorded and the participants did not see this as obtrusive because the camera was not directed at them recording only audio. The moderator thanked the participants for their active role in the discussion, which lasted a bit more than an hour.
A similar procedure was used for a focus group discussion in Saskatoon. Eight people responded to the ads, but only four (two men and two women) could make it to the meeting, partly because of nasty weather. The discussion lasted about an hour and twenty minutes, and all participants took an active part in it. All participants in both groups were involved in the discussion, and all of them offered interesting insights and ideas relevant to the topic.
The first interview with the ND from television news station CTV–Vancouver started from defining a story that might have a commercial influence in it. The CTV ND sees business-related stories on the continuum from reports on the state of the economy and finances to consumer reporting, sponsor segments and business-oriented implications of environmentalism. As far as one story has the possibility to benefit certain businesses through an exposure to the audience, the editorial decision about using this story in the newscast would depend on a variety of factors. One of the key factors is the size of the impact of the event staged by a corporation or a company for a community. If the contribution is significant enough, for instance, coverage of Coca Cola’s contribution to the educational development in a district, then the story will be run on the premises that it becomes an issue of public interest. However, an effort would be made to minimize the exposure of corporate branding. The ND realizes and explicitly admits that corporations want to get legitimacy through exposure to the local news. They will not get free advertising per se, but if a report is visually compelling, has an obvious entertainment value, and provides information, the piece can be run on air, as the CTV ND thinks that the interests of the audience might be rather high.
The CTV ND admits that there might be some benefits to the business shown in the news, but these benefits are not the purpose of putting the piece on air. He noticed that the public relations and communication departments of some big companies have learned how to stage events in such a way that they look good both as a piece of entertainment and can be interpreted as news events with a certain public value. He further enumerated a number of events ranging from the demonstration of a new lingerie showcase on the street to the support drives for medical and social causes, which had attracted local celebrities and included different entertainment events that the public could attend and enjoy. The key criterion for the ND is whether a business makes a significant contribution to a community. Branding is rare, and editorial filters exist, but creative stories like dropping 1,000 donuts for a cause wind-up on air due to its entertainment value and novelty. Another type of story that could have a commercial influence, but still could be considered worth airing is reports on events or processes that could be interpreted as innovative. For example, a story about new electric cars at the new auto show may end up on air.
The CTV ND also assured the interviewer that no story can become number one on the newscast if it has promotional content. He also mentioned that an issue of commercial impact might emerge in the case of sponsored events about which there is already an editorial decision to cover them. For example, if there is an information tease inside the news about a “Survivor” episode or a similar entertainment program, the sponsors’ names and information can be incorporated in the messages. “Slow news cycles”, days when there are not breaking news, or not enough other types of significant happenings to cover, allows for there to be more chances for the reports containing commercially influenced messages to be on air.
When the question about relative broad latitude of acceptance for such messages was asked, the CTV ND admitted a certain freedom on behalf of the editorial decision makers to decide when a story is worth running, even if it may have some commercial tint to it. He insisted that at the end of the day what matters is that the decision makers are in control of the content of the news and they are skilled enough and ethically responsible enough to make the right decision.
The second interview with the ND of KMTR television news station in Eugene revolved around the same questions. The expectations were that the answers could be in line with what has already surfaced in the first interview, but the interviewer was open to possible differences in the interpretation of commercial influence in the news by a US-based media professional. The KMTR ND defined some priorities in covering the news and events that might have commercially influenced bearing. He denied that any video news releases supplied by the corporations ever end up in the newscast. He also mentioned strict ethical guidelines the news station has that serve as filters for commercially intrusive messages.
Nevertheless, the KMTR ND also admitted there are no established standards of what to consider as acceptable messages from a commercial standpoint. The key principle that guides what is acceptable is whether or not the reported messages are benefitial to the viewers. When asked to specify what that means, the KMTR ND outlined them as something new, publicly important, and interesting. These criteria can apply to many types of news reports, including those that still may have commercial intrusion in them. For instance, he mentioned the coverage of a new Starbucks production line because it dealt with the economic climate in times of crisis and was thought to create new jobs; information treated as having a public value. Fundraisers with active participation on behalf of different businesses may also end up on air. Examples of such fundraisers included support drives for the fallen policemen, local young athletes, libraries and so forth. According to the KMTR ND, these reports might contain the names and representatives of companies, their reps might be given a chance to speak on camera, but their business activities would not be included in such coverage.
Another venue where business might get a rather warm reception is coverage of environmental issues. The public in Eugene is perceived as environmentally conscious. Thus, reports about environmentally friendly businesses might end up on air. The cause is promoted through the “Going Green” segment. For example, a story about bottled water provided by a local company in environmentally friendly containers was a part of one of the newscasts. Some individual stories with a human angle might also be a part of the newscast, as in a case with a florist selling beautiful bouquets on Mothers’ Day. Some local celebrities celebrating their important events in local restaurants or other places for public gathering may also end up on air. The KMTR ND summarized criteria for stories with some commercial elements in them that might be used on air:
1) Viewers’ benefits. The criterion that includes nearly all qualities that any news must have.
2) Helping a third party (a fundraiser). This is considered to be a cause worthy to cover with some acceptance of covering business participants.
3) Public benefit. It goes beyond only individual stories and leads to coverage of businesses ‘contribution to the communities and new ways of doing something.
4) Local cultures, e.g., wineries and restaurants. This criterion is also rather broad and might include coverage of a rather large class of businesses with unintended commercial benefits to this class.
The third interview was with Robert Browning, News Director of KIEM in Eureka, California. He reported that news is receiving greater pressure to include advertising as part of the content of stories. The sales staff is constantly looking for an edge to entice clients. They refer to it to clients and potential clients as “value added”. He explained that he had innumerable talks with sales reps to explain why he is not going to commercialize the news. The ND explained that there are at least two or three requests per month and the requests usually come from less experienced sales staff. This news director has worked in five different markets and he stated that it is the same in all the markets he has worked in. He stated that in a smaller market like Eureka, people are trying to get experience and move on as quickly as they can to a larger market. In that case, sales people want to do everything they can to increase sales and that can often result in increased pressure on the news to allow advertising content within the content of the news.
All three interviewees seemed to stand for journalistic integrity and voice their support for a divide between sales and news departments, but they seem to be flexible in regards to running certain pieces on air, which contain commercially influenced materials if they meet other criteria of newsworthiness and if they are entertaining and visually interesting. This is a major finding because such acceptance indicates that commercial intrusion in the television news becomes legitimate if such an intrusion has some other news characteristics.
Results of Focus Group Discussions.
Eugene Focus Group
The moderators showed the participants video of clear incidents of advertising cloaked as news, and then posed the questions to assess the participants’ attitudes toward the commercialization phenomenon. All the participants said they are conscious of this happening in the news. They recalled some other examples of commercial intrusion into the news, but were less unanimous in evaluating this process. Some said that they would put up with the stories having a commercial tint if they deal with interesting content. Further inquiry on what could constitute such interest varied, but the main requirement seemed to be a local focus of reports on what matters to the community. Some participants shifted their attention to the commercial slots and found some advertisements irritating, but the moderators reminded them that the legitimate commercial slots were not under discussion.
None of the participants expressed disagreement with the commercial intrusion, as long as there was local information being disseminated. They felt a line was crossed only if it was blatantly advertising and not informational or of local interest. Some participants could recall some cases of the product placement when the product was shown on the screen with either a price tag or description of its qualities, or both. Other than that, there was no outcry of any kind about this issue being unethical or this practice cutting into the news as it is delivered to them. Time after time, the discussants focused on the necessity of sufficient coverage of local content as being the main concern.
Saskatoon Focus Group
The group discussion started with demonstrating several clips of reports with commercially influenced materials, and then the set of questions about the discussants’ attitudes to commercialization in the news were asked. The discussion resembled the one in Eugene in emphasizing the importance of preserving comprehensive local coverage. The main attitude was: if a strict rule is needed in order to prevent some ethical violation, let it be added. However, the participants realized that singling out individual businesses places them in a better position than those not having exposure in the news. This exposure may lead to unfair competition, conditioning some recall of the business after seeing the business story. The others contended that even if some stories might give an unfair advantage to certain businesses, few viewers would think about it.
The main results of the two focus groups can be summarized as follows: the participants realize that commercial influence on the television news is increasing, but they are ready to put up with it if this influence does not compromise the quality of news free from such influence. Sometimes, the participants found some news value in commercially tainted messages. For example, some reports about trade shows, reports about local restaurants and wineries, may be an information resource for a newcomer to an area.
The results of study demonstrated that the news directors have a broad latitude of acceptance of what is considered to be commercial elements in the news. The main factors why the news directors tolerate commercial intrusion into the news appears to be the community impact of the events involving certain businesses and a lack of significant events to report on some days.
The results also pointed to a growing tendency of PR departments to stage their campaigns as events directed at bettering life in the businesses’ target communities. The communication departments of some corporations realized that the added values from television news exposure could stem from their depicting business players as active participants in bettering the communities in which they operate demonstrating their social responsibility. Such tendency shows that there are growing and increasingly skillful PR efforts of the corporations to create engaging, visually attractive stage events. Disguised as the news, such events are coupled with an appetite of the television news stations, which might lead to increasing blending of the news with commercial information.
Meanwhile, the focus groups participants did not seem to be alarmed by the commercial influence on the news, citing it as a smaller evil than a lack of relevance and the sensational character of the news as more irritating. The participants managed to recognize the instances of commercial influence in the television news and they agreed that such influence has a detrimental effect on the quality of the news content. However, they seem to accept a certain level of commercial intrusion into the news if it allows for surviving local news with a reasonable length and depth of coverage.
In conclusion, the study shows that commercial influence in local television news is not only significant, but also acceptable for both the people in charge of the editorial policies at local TV stations and the viewers who are used to the ubiquitous commercial culture of modern television. Another implication of the study is that there is an assumption that commercial influence is limited and so far it has not compromised the key function of the news, to inform the audience on the issues of public interest. If the phenomenon of “stealth advertising” is worrisome to just a group of academics and not on the radars of a broader public, then the legitimate research question for future studies might be whether or not we will get local television news that will not be easily differentiated from commercial and consumer information.
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