She’s a child, not a choice.” That was the banner headline that appeared over a full-page color photo of a developing fetus in a recent advertising insert in the Daily. The 12-page supplement, produced and paid for by the Human Life Alliance of Minnesota, distressed more than a few Daily readers when it appeared on Tuesday, April 13.
Though not as graphic as some of the materials disseminated by abortion opponents showing aborted fetuses and the like, the abortion insert was anything but subtle. It contained dozens of items on the “horrors” of abortion, many of which were presented as news stories, complete with headlines such as, “Legalized abortion based on lies and fraud,” “The wound heals, the scar remains,” and “Birth mother opts for adoption … the loving alternative.”
Interspersed were photos of fetuses, photos of parents playing with smiling children, testimonials from women who had made the “right” choice and an explicit description of abortion techniques.
It is hardly surprising that some people were upset. In fact, many people on the Daily staff, including its editorial board, criticized the Daily’s advertising department for approving the insert.
This debate has raised a number of issues about the Daily’s mission, its ethics and its procedures. There are three questions in particular that need to be addressed: (1) Who decides what ads appear in the Daily? (2) What limits are there, or should there be, on the appearance of ads? (3) Should the Daily be running issue ads like the abortion insert?
Who approves Daily’s ads?
Let’s start with who does not make advertising decisions. The editor in chief, Nick Doty, and managing editor, Matt Cross, are not involved in the decisions about which ads will appear in the Daily, even though they are often the first to be called when advertising controversies erupt.
The Daily is structured so that advertising decisions are made exclusively by the business side of the paper, led by Business Manager Adam Duey and Sales Manager Marty Brown. They are guided by an advertising acceptance policy, and anything that appears to violate the policy is referred to an advertising review board which makes a final decision. All non-advertising content decisions are made by the editorial side of the paper, headed by Doty and Cross. Neither side encroaches on the other, and for good reason.
Newspapers have always struggled to resist attempts by advertisers to influence news content. To repel these attempted manipulations, most papers have disconnected their advertising and editorial spheres. The Daily has done so emphatically, erecting a near-complete wall of separation between the two.
What’s unique about the Daily is that it doesn’t have a single person serving as a publisher who, like at most papers, is the final arbiter of both advertising and editorial content. While the lack of a publisher is generally not a problem, it occasionally leads to confusion in situations like this one where the content of a particular ad seems not to jibe with the editorial tenor of the rest of the paper.
In these types of situations, it is not out of line for those on the editorial side to criticize the decisions of the advertising side, which is exactly what the Daily’s editorial board did in this case. On April 16, the board published an editorial calling the decision to run the abortion ad a “mistake” and characterizing the insert as “propaganda.”
This confused some people. The Daily’s editorial board perhaps added to that confusion by directing its criticism at “the Daily” instead of more specifically at the Daily’s advertising department.
Setting aside that minor imprecision, it was not improper for the board to question the advertising department’s decision. Readers should understand that even though both sides of the Daily operate autonomously, each is free to criticize the other. Criticism by the editorial board does not necessarily mean advertising policies will change or a different decision will be made next time.
What limits on ads?
Many people were also concerned with the appearance of the abortion insert. Several Daily staffers, as well as the editorial board, were bothered by the fact that the insert was printed on newsprint and appeared to be a special section of the Daily, rather than an externally-produced ad.
This is a valid point. While it’s not necessary to prohibit advertising inserts printed on newsprint, there should at least be very conspicuous disclaimers to make clear that inserts are not part of the paper.
The disclaimers on the abortion insert were not adequate. While the words “advertising supplement” appeared on the top of each page, the type was small and did not stand out against the rest of the text. Only the most careful readers were likely to have noticed the disclaimers.
It should be made clear, while I agree with the editorial board that the abortion insert was not adequately labeled, nothing in the insert violated the advertising acceptance policy. I might have wished the advertising department had been more discriminating, but there was no breach of policy here.
The Daily’s 11-page advertising policy puts a number of restrictions on the content of ads. Ads for products like alcohol and tobacco, and ads for certain job announcements are subject to legal restrictions. Ads that are misleading or that advertise illegal products are also not allowed. In terms of taste, however, the only applicable restrictions deal with the use of erotic images and degrading depictions of women. Beyond that, the guidelines give great discretion to the staff.
Attempts by advertisers to disguise their commercial messages in what appear to be news formats is a growing problem in journalism. On television, infomercials masquerade as talk shows, movie studios promote films with ads that appear as movie reviews, and in many newspapers businesses run ads that look just like news stories, complete with headlines touting their latest product breakthroughs.
As advertisers find increasingly clever ways to conceal their messages, news organizations have to develop detailed guidelines on the presentation of these types of ads. The Daily’s ad policy notes that it reserves the right to add the word “advertisement” to ads using news formats, but a more precise set of guidelines is needed. These should address the appropriate size, appearance and wording of disclaimers and guidelines for distinguishing the text of ads from the text of news stories.
If there is any risk of confusing readers, these types of ads should not run. Of course, confusion is exactly what the advertisers want, and the Daily’s sales staff — who have no substantial stake in the paper’s editorial credibility — have little incentive to make things harder for their clients. This is one issue that the editorial and business sides need to work out together. It’s an issue that will continue to resurface, and it’s one in which each side has a substantial interest.
Why permit issue ads?
A more basic question being asked is whether the Daily should run issue ads at all, and if so, what criteria should prevail? There is a long history of issue ads appearing in newspapers. Probably the most important First Amendment case ever decided by the U.S. Supreme Court — New York Times v. Sullivan — involved an ad placed by civil rights leaders seeking help in their struggle against Southern police and judges.
The Daily is among many papers that continue this tradition of opening their pages to paid political statements. Some question whether this is an appropriate role for a college newspaper. I think it is precisely and uniquely the role of a college newspaper to serve as a vehicle for the expression of a broad range of ideas, and not just those of staff members and letter writers.
As the Supreme Court said in another case, the public university is “peculiarly the marketplace of ideas.” This is the place where people are supposed to be engaged, they are supposed to be challenged and they are supposed to be made to deal with some of the most extreme types of speech, presented in ways that occasionally shock the conscience.
By providing a forum for all speakers and all viewpoints — through, among other things, the acceptance of issue ads — the Daily helps fulfill its most essential mission, as well as the University’s mission to be a center of ideological contest, not conformity.
In light of this, the ad department’s decision to run the insert from the Human Life Alliance was not inconsistent with the Daily’s traditional function, nor was it inconsistent with the Daily’s current advertising acceptance policy.
The editorial board argued the decision to accept the insert was a case of “money trumping morals.” But there is nothing immoral about providing a forum for speech. Whether this is what motivated the decision or not, the running of the ad is defensible on those grounds.
The real test of the advertising staff’s morality will come in the future as it is presented with other issue ads. Will it apply the policy consistently, and what new boundaries, if any, will it impose on the paid expression of ideas?
Though perhaps not popular, the decision to accept the abortion insert was justifiable, given the Daily’s history of accepting issue ads, and given that the abortion insert did not violate any current provision of the advertising acceptance policy.
Having said that, the Daily’s advertising board should immediately consider drafting clearer and stricter guidelines for disclaimers for ads using news formats. The business side of the Daily needs to recognize that its decisions affect the way the entire paper is perceived.
Erik Ugland is the Daily’s readers’ representative. His column appears alternate Mondays. He welcomes comments on the Daily or his columns at [email protected]