Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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Nov. 4, 2008, 9:10 a.m.

Dealing with objectionable online ads: Two approaches

Two popular news websites are taking different approaches to an ethical question print publications have long faced: whether to run advertisements with which they strongly disagree. Ads supporting California’s Proposition 8, which would amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage, have recently appeared on the technology blog TechCrunch and the political site Talking Points Memo. In both cases, the ads were hosted by Google, which has, incidentally, formally opposed the ballot measure that’s before voters today. The proprietors of TechCrunch and TPM both oppose the amendment, too, but they’ve reached different conclusions on what to do about those ads.

TechCrunch said yesterday they were “going to try to filter them out,” which the Google AdSense program permits. TPM editor Josh Marshall, however, wrote a lengthy post early this morning saying the ads will stay on his site. He referred to a five-year-old policy, formulated when he first began accepting advertisements, and quoted this passage:

Precisely because we are in the news and opinion business, advertising tied to ideas, issues or advocacy presents us with a particular challenge. If we reject ads that we disagree with, every ad we accept becomes, to one degree or another, a de facto endorsement. In other words, if we run ads only from candidates or causes we support, then the ad relationship also becomes an endorsement relationship. Even worse, a paid endorsement. That threatens the integrity of what we do — which is to report the facts we find and explain the opinions we have.

That’s in line with the general policy of most newspapers, but it’s not a common idea on the web.

This particular issue may be moot now with Election Day upon us, but one way partisans traditionally combat ads they don’t like is simply to click on them. Depending on how the ad is sold, that could both generate revenue for the site and drain the advertiser’s pocketbook. But click fraud, as it’s known, can also get the web site hosting the ad in trouble with the folks who supply their advertising, so the Nieman Journalism Lab cannot in good faith endorse vigilante web surfing.

POSTED     Nov. 4, 2008, 9:10 a.m.
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