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Sponsored content: the scrutiny of believability

Your 25 January story News ethics light shines on paid Reuters article raises important issues of professional ethics, seemingly inexorable changes in the nature of modern digital journalism, and the question of operating costs.

Journalists at Reuters understandably are concerned about ethical implications of sponsored articles accompanying their independent work. But other well-regarded news outlets engaged in similar revenue-producing activities have not incurred any serious internal or external criticism or concerns over the provenance of sponsored content. Not so far, anyway.

At the risk of seeming to dismiss a controversy I do understand, I would simply suggest that your third paragraph makes important points about guidelines that sponsored content must follow. There should be no pretence about it being journalism, even if it often takes the form of reported information presented as a public service. It must be credible and honest not only on its own terms, but in the view of any intelligent reader. And it must be clearly and precisely identified as to its sponsor and source.

Can this be done? Well, I think The New York Times is doing it. At the Times, sponsored content is produced by a discrete entity called T-Brand Studio, whose staff, operations, clients, and intentions are fully detailed on the Times’ website. The Times’ clients include major international corporations and foreign governments. Most importantly, I think, T-Brand Studio staff include journalist and editorial functions - separate from the news operation - but charged with finding and producing content that can stand the scrutiny of believability.

Here is the key point your article raises - judgments must be made about whether certain content and certain clients can pass basic muster. For sponsored content to be credible, and ethical, it must be produced at a level of editorial judgment that working journalists would recognise and, perhaps, accept on its own terms. ■