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News organization blurs line between attack ad and editorial content

No immediate response from Moran, Whitmer

By David Wildstein, June 28 2018 3:19 pm

A new digital attack ad launched today criticizing the governor and legislative leaders for facing a state government shutdown.

With grainy photos and ominous music, it looks like any ordinary negative ad.  Photos that make Chris Christie and Phil Murphy look evil, as well as the now-classic aerial shot of Christie at the beach. There’s also a photo of Steve Sweeney and Craig Coughlin looking a little like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.

It even has a disclaimer, sort of: paid for by NJ.com.

It’s not really an ad, but rather online video content that likely blurs the line between freedom of the press and a paid media advertisement.  The only thing that was different from a paid political ad was that it ended with the NJ.com logo and not the disclaimer of some run-of-the-mill political action committee.

NJ.com released the video content on Twitter, but by mid-afternoon it had not appeared on their own website.

Jeff Brindle, the executive director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, says that “at first blush, it’s editorial content,” so NJ.com is exempt from filing.

NJ Advance Media/NJ.com/The Star-Ledger doesn’t say who wrote and produced the video content, so it’s hard to tell if it’s opinion or news.

Star-Ledger editorial page editor Tom Moran did not immediately respond to 1:40 PM e-mail asking if this came from the editorial board or the news staff.  Kevin Whitmer, vice president for content at NJ Advance Media, did not immediately respond to a 1:32 PM message to determine who created the unattributed video.

Many newspapers, including the New York Times, now have a policy of crediting all individuals who contribute to a story.  The Washington Post publishes their Policies and Standards, which says that “significant reporting by a stringer, staff member, or other Post employee should be credited in a byline or a tagline at the end of a story.”

“A newspaper has an obligation to be honest with its readers, to tell where a story originated and who is responsible. Readers deserve to know this information,” wrote Bob Steele, an ethics group leader at The Poynter Institute, in a 2003 article after the Jason Blair scandal.  “The news story byline personalizes the report, so readers know someone is responsible for what’s reported and written. It allows readers to hold someone accountable for the story.”

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