Is transparency enough in brand journalism?

I posted a thought-provoking column from Saturday’s Globe and Mail newspaper on my Facebook page this morning about the rise in brand journalism that’s occurring as traditional news media outlets continue to disintegrate.

So what if the bias is transparent? Does it really matter if readers can’t think critically?

Supporters of brand journalism told Globe writer Ira Basen that there’s nothing nefarious about this rising form of journalism because this type of article is clearly written to promote a brand. For example, such articles—news-like stories written to promote a product or service—are published on company websites or in their newsletters or on specially marked advertorial pages.

Content marketers told Basen that “transparency is the new objectivity.”


To me, there is a fairly clear line between “real” journalism and advertorial writing and I can easily tell the difference. For example, as soon as I see the heading “special section” or “special feature” in a newspaper or magazine, I know I’m probably reading an advertorial—a puff piece in which there will be nothing negative to balance the positive promotional aspects of the story.

But I’ve been a journalist for more than 20 years and I sometimes forget that not everyone views the media with such a critical eye.

Indeed, writes Basen: “Do most readers really have the time, the resources or the inclination to do the kind of filtering and critical thinking formerly done by editors?”

My experience as a college communications instructor tells me the answer is, “No,” at least when it comes to the generation of young adults that I’m teaching.

Some of the existing research on critical thinking skills among college students suggests I’m correct.

In 2011, two American researchers published “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” a book based on a national study they conducted on 2,300 American university undergraduate students.

Study found that 45 percent of U.S. college students studied made no critical thinking improvement

According to the New York Times, Professors Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia found that 45 percent of undergraduate students made no significant improvements in their communication, complex reasoning, or critical thinking skills in their first two years of college.

If that statistic is anywhere close to being true for Canadian universities, we should be very worried about our own young people’s ability to filtre and judge the credibility of the information they receive.

Every year, I lead a lesson on evaluating online information sources to prepare my first-year business students for a research project. I give a quiz at the end of the class and most pass it with flying colours. However, when students hand in their research papers several weeks later, their references pages are full of non-credible sources.

I don’t get it.

Basen, in his Globe column, points to a recent study done by the Canadian Council of PR Firms that suggests there’s a more global disconnect among young Canadians. The Council found that almost one-quarter of Canadians aged 18 to 34 considered company websites to be trusted news sources. Meanwhile, the study found that only 10 percent of us aged 35 to 54 considered corporate sites to be trustworthy, Basen reports.

Here’s the book I plan to read, and write about, next

Those statistics tell us a lot, don’t they? And they’re worrying because they suggest that—transparency of bias or not—younger Canadians are ripe for the misleading.

So what am I going to do? And what do I hope you, my fellow teachers, will do?

I hope you’ll take a close look at the way you teach your classes. Are you working to develop critical thinkers in your classrooms?

Most of us teach because we want to make the world a better place through our students. Here’s one big way we can do it: by helping our students to become better critical thinkers and to see the world more clearly.

That’s what I plan to do. I’ve been reading up on critical thinking as part of my research towards my Masters of Adult Education. Indeed, the next text I plan to review is Stephen D. Brookfield’s “Developing Critical Thinkers”.

And I’ll tell you all about it in my next blog entry in a few days or so.


About teachingteacher

Business communications instructor, journalist, corporate communications writer and media trainer ... and Masters Candidate M.Ad.Ed.
This entry was posted in adult education, Blogging, Critical Thinking, Reflective Practice and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Is transparency enough in brand journalism?

  1. I always believe transparency is one key term for Journalism. It go beyond borders of what is reality and what is existing in the world of Journalism.

  2. Thanks for your comment. But is transparency enough for today’s non-critical-thinking readers? Sure, it’s due diligence on the part of the content provider. But does today’s younger generation identify bias even when transparency is there? In my experience, the case is often not. A teaching colleague who read my blog on this subject says her advertising students just don’t care. In other words, they don’t care if an article is biased; they’ll use it in their research anyway and quote it as truth and not give a damn. That’s disheartening, isn’t it?

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