Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A Kind Word for Euphemisms

Euphemisms have their place. Maybe you don’t need to tell a     4-year-old what really happened to his puppy just yet. It’s a kindness.

“Enhanced interrogation”?  “Downsizing”?  They’re meant to spare feelings too. In these cases the feelings being protected are those of the speaker rather than the listener, but you can see where the intent is similar.

Each industry has its own expressions, and publishing has come up with a nifty one: “native advertising.” It amounts to inserting advertising into the editorial matter of a publication. Not sure where the name got its start, but parsing it out, I’d guess that saving “advertising” in the name was a way to attract advertisers, while the “native” part is calculated to make it sound healthful. Like “natural” prefaced to ingredients for all sorts of foods. 

It used to be that publishers and journalists were so concerned about even the appearance of conflict of interest that they maintained a “Chinese wall” between the department that wrote news and the department that sold advertising. No advertiser could ever be able to influence news coverage. If you didn’t keep that wall separating the editorial and advertising departments, your publication was considered to be prostituting itself.

 Well, not only have fallen publications been rehabilitated; respectable ones have joined the sisterhood. In a 180-degree turnabout in reasoning, the argument now goes that you’re not serving your readers if you’re not telling your advertisers’ stories.

I’ve written for a number of trade journals, but I’ve never been a full-time journalist, and I attended Business rather than Journalism school. Even so, I’ve always subscribed to the idea that advertising should be kept out of the editorial side. There’s enough persuasion going on already without slipping in more in the guise of reporting. Yes, there are federal regulations and industry codes of ethics that mandate transparency for the new format, but as we know, regulations are skirted regularly and ethics…ain’t what they used to be.

Maybe the worst part is, now reporters and editors --- the people formerly under almost Hippocratic Oath not to  do it -- are being conscripted to write the material. The argument for it is that, in business publications, for example,  they write about the companies in their industry regularly and so are in the best position to “go native” (while we’re talking in euphemisms).

Unarguable as far as it goes, but what happens when and if one of those reporters or editors has some negative news to report about one of the advertisers he or she’s been shilling for? The conflict of interest that’s been latent all along now becomes real. Where is his/her loyalty expected to lie? It’s the old “serving two masters” problem, and I haven’t heard that anyone has come up with an answer to that one yet.

My inclination is to bemoan the change, although practical considerations tell me I should celebrate it. I’m in the catbird seat: I can write  advertising that reads like journalism, and journalism slanted to persuade. But I still don’t like it.

(Belay that posting date up there by the title; this was ready on Sunday the 26th. 
I forgot to post it!)