The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has questioned whether the use of wraparound political advertisements dressed up as front page news put the editorial integrity of newspapers at risk at a time when integrity should be protected more than ever.
The issue was highlighted most recently by the Conservative Party’s wraparound ads that featured in numerous regional newspapers including Mansfield Chad, Bury Times and Stockport Express on 4 May, polling day for the UK’s local elections.
This is the front page wrap on today's Bury Times. On an Election Day when people are going to the polls. No doubt it's happening elsewhere. pic.twitter.com/Od7jpR6xtH
— Media Bias Exposed (@bias_exposed) May 4, 2017
The newspaper mastheads feature at the top of the advertisements, which appear similar to the layout adopted by many newspapers for their front pages. The NUJ said the advertising "is clearly designed to convey the impression of a news story and incorporates the paper masthead". As such, it has questioned whether the design and layout of the ads could be interpreted as editorial endorsements for a political party or candidate, putting the newspaper’s editorial integrity at risk.
Tories buying big adverts in bloody Mansfield, which has been Labour since 1923. Not one mention of "Conservatives". pic.twitter.com/RwXQ24d2Sc — Jim Waterson (@jimwaterson) May 3, 2017
"There is a long, proud tradition of clearly differentiating between news and advertising, even in newspapers which adopt a partisan editorial line, and that principle should not be abandoned,” said Séamus Dooley, acting general secretary at the NUJ.
“The masthead should be a symbol of editorial independence and it is clear many readers, of all political persuasions and none, are opposed to this trend,” he added.
While political candidates and parties are permitted to campaign on polling day as long as it does not take place inside a polling station, the NUJ has urged newspapers to consider their political influence on readers when accepting these ads, which blur the lines between journalism and advertising.
"Newspapers play an important role in shaping public opinion and can influence the outcome of an election. We will be monitoring the use of wraparound advertising very carefully and would ask editors and publishers to take steps to protect the editorial integrity of their titles,” said Dooley.
Local and national newspapers are suffering from industry-wide print advertising declines as marketers increasingly shift budgets online, an economic strain which the NUJ claims could have a negative impact on the type of advertising newspapers choose to accept.
Chris Morley, Northern & Midlands organiser at the NUJ, said: “The newspaper companies are clearly desperate to bring in much-needed print revenue. The political parties know this and it would seem are driving a hard bargain on what these ads look like. The unspoken demand is that it should look as much like normal editorial as possible so that it can fool the casual reader that it is the work of journalists, not political spin doctors.
“From what I have seen, tags telling readers that these front page wraparounds are ads fail to be prominent enough – or in some cases are missing altogether – and the type and layout is too much like the original journalism inside the paper.
"This is dangerous territory for newspaper companies to concede and far more editorial judgment should be exercised in acceptance of these ads which are potentially toxic to affected titles in some communities.”
The union said that it brought up the issue with the Trinity Mirror board at its annual general meeting last week. It claimed that Trinity Mirror’s chief executive Simon Fox defended the right to take the advertising revenue, but said he would look into examples where the distinction between advert and editorial was not clear.
It comes at a time when both regional and national newspaper groups are attempting to prove to readers the value of trusted, paid-for news during a fake news crisis, a plea which could be undermined by advertising policies that toe the line.