By Bianca Chan

I don’t have to tell you that the Internet is a complex and fairly unknown place. While it’s wonderfully convenient for looking up anything from Sunday dinner recipes to where the closest costume shop is, it is also a deceptively tricky arena. I also don’t have to tell you to be safe on the Internet: we’ve all seen an episode of “To Catch a Predator” and have heard about the Dark Web (if you haven’t, you should Google it). But there are other, sneaky aspects that anyone, but especially online students who are constantly on the web, should be aware of. One such issue is sponsored content.

Talk to any journalist – or anyone who vaguely keeps up with the news – and they’ll tell you that journalism is either dying or changing. The journalists will probably tell you it’s changing, and everyone else will most likely go with the former. A convincing argument could be made for both answers. One thing is for sure, with the rise of the digital age, legacy journalism outlets are falling by the waysides.

Struggling to adapt to digital platforms while failing to effectively gain advertising revenues, news organizations have found a prosperous, yet identity-threatening solution. It goes by several names – native advertising, sponsored content, advertorials, branded or paid content – but essentially they are the same thing: paid advertisements that look like the news, something that has been traditionally – at least in theory – independent of the interests of stakeholders.

three images from instagram that are actually ads

Here are three examples of sponsored content on an Instagram newsfeed, positioned and designed to look like any other post.

However, it presents some ethical dilemmas. The idea of profiting off of deception in an industry that has not only based itself off of, but prides itself on transparency, fairness and neutrality is a big one.

When the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) of the United States issued an enforcement advisory on native content at the end of 2015, it specifically said that the use of deceptive or misrepresenting practices is prohibited and that this applies to the digital marketplace as well. According to the FTC regulations, “advertisements or promotional messages are deceptive if they convey to consumers expressly or by implication that they’re independent, impartial, or from a source other than the sponsoring advertiser – in other words, that they’re something other than ads.”

links to three stories, one of which is paid content

Notice how the middle “article” looks deceptively similar to to the others? Well, it’s an ad presented by Mini USA, a subtlety that isn’t noticed by everyone.

And they’re right. It’s hard to argue that this practice of advertorial is anything but deceptive – in fact the whole idea relies on it.  Yet as always, the reality of the situation is not this clear cut.

Not all of this native content comes from advertisers. Some of it is produced by freelance journalists and editorial staff. Today, nearly every media outlet uses this marketing strategy to bring in revenue, including legacy news organizations such as National Post, Toronto Star, Global News, and The Globe and Mail.

And the scariest part? As a financial solution it’s proving to be quite successful for some news sites. Buzzfeed, a site that combines some serious news stories with a lot of trivial matter, is notorious for peppering its editorial content with paid content. According to leaked internal financial reports, Buzzfeed tripled its revenue between 2012 and 2013. This is after doubling its investment in editorial content and accelerating its spending on social media ads that drive readers towards its sponsored content.

Could this be the solution that legacy news organizations have been searching for? Despite its ethical shortcomings, sponsored content has emerged as a partial solution to the financial crisis news organizations are currently experiencing.

As in the case of Buzzfeed’s leaked financial reports, it is evident that promoting and increasing sponsored content can lead to a significant spike in advertising-driven revenue. By hiring editorial teams to produce native content, this new branch of journalism has created thousands of more jobs in an era when traditional news writing jobs have shrunk. In fact, entire sections of news organizations’ online platforms have been created for sponsored content, such as the Globe and Mail’s “Special Section.”

Journalism legends Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel wrote “the principles and purpose of journalism are defined by…the function news plays in the lives of people,” in their co-authored book, The Elements of Journalism. Accordingly, when that function changes to marketing, advertising and selling commodities, it by definition will not be the same journalism that is a bastion of democracy and an institution built on verification, accuracy and editorial independence.

Is this new type of journalism the future for media organizations? Is there room for the traditional journalism that reports independently? Can we still have democracy without the watchdogs? These are the questions we must ask ourselves as we enter the dawn of a new era of journalism.