The influence of advertisers on editorial content

A Case Study

Seminar Paper, 2007
12 Pages, Grade: Distinction



Research Question and Objectives

Statement of Significance


Data Resources

Case A: General Motors

Case B: Staples Sports Center



One of the basic principles of a free press demands from newspapers, as well as from other media, to operate in a competitive market, where they depend on advertising clients to make profit. Although the media is highly relying on advertisers, “the walls between the newsroom and the business departments”, has been considered “a sacred barrier”, unshiftable and impenetrable (Underwood 1998, p. 24). This “idea of a ‘wall’ between advertising and editorial was originally intended […] as a marketing device, a token of integrity that would help to draw readers” to the newspapers (Fleetwood 1999, p. 40).

Nevertheless, it is widely known that “some [advertisers] attempt to pressure editors […] into modifying their policies or views” (Dunn et al. 1990, pp. 91-92). Furthermore, “with declining newspaper circulation and increasing intermedia competition for advertising dollars, ad sales departments at newspapers experience rising pressure from advertisers” to avoid unfavourable content (Soonate & Bergen 2007, p. 111). The results of a study conducted by Soley & Craig (1992, p. 7) show that “about 90 percent of editors have been pressured by advertisers because of the type and content of stories carried by the[ir] paper. […] And, more than half said there was pressure from within their newspapers to write stories to please advertisers”. Accordingly, as early as in the 1980’s, Bagdikian (1983, pp. 151-152) assumed a mutual collaboration between the media and advertising clients, and accused newspapers of adapting “their content to the needs of advertising and of adopting its ideology as their own. […] The media are no longer neutral agents of the merchant but essential gears in the machinery of corporate giantism”. In order to attract advertisers newspapers and “newsmagazines use ‘soft’ cover stories to sell ads, confuse readers with ‘advertorials’, and occasionally self-censor on subjects known to be a problem with advertisers” (Steinem 1990, p. 20). This pro-advertising friendly atmosphere has brought editorial and advertising departments closer together at many newspapers (Risser 2000). Hence, a more critical “view of advertising support of the media is that it exercises too much influence over the media in exchange for its support” (Kleppner et al. 1986, p. 613). As a matter of fact, “most of the mass media tends to support middle-of-the-road causes” far from controversial issues (Kleppner et al. 1986, p. 613).

In previous studies, scholars have surveyed newspaper editors (Howland 1989; Soley & Craig 1992), writers (Hays & Reisner 1990), and network correspondents (Price 2003) about their perceived pressures from advertisers. Since newspapers in a competitive situation try to keep problems involving ad sales out of the public eye, the “battles with advertisers” often occur behind closed doors (Cranberg 1993, p. 13). Therefore, it is very difficult to recognise and to document newspaper adaptation to advertising interests. However, there are cases when commercial pressure on editors becomes very obvious; especially when it fails to succeed and becomes publicly known (Christensen 2005). This could either be because the advertiser not only threatens to, but actually does withdraw its advertising from a newspaper as reaction to unwanted content (Soley & Craig 1992, p. 7), or because information about business agreements between client and newspaper leaks out to the public (Soonate & Bergen 2007, p. 112). Both incidents of exercising influence on editors were observable at the Los Angeles Times, a daily newspaper in South California, USA. In contrast to quantitative surveys, this research will qualitatively illustrate the influence of commercial pressure on newspapers, using the L.A. Times as a particular case study.

Research Question and Objectives

For this purpose, two unique cases will be presented, where the interference of business partners with journalistic producing of the L.A. Times occurred. Thereby, the main research questions are: what happened why, and how did it influence the editorial content. The fundamental theory is that the media is aware of commercial pressure, which is exercised in order to censor or control editorial content. Consequently, the objective is to illustrate commercial influence on news content, by describing and analysing two separate cases.

Statement of Significance

Following the Washington, D.C.-based ‘Center for the Study of Commercialism’, Gersh (1992, p. 17) identifies two main kinds of media manipulation: “censorship, which occurs when an advertiser […] dictates news content, or when an editor quiets or slants a story to placate an advertiser’s real or perceived demands; and corruption of the editorial process, which occurs when commercial messages are presented as news”. Each of both selected cases refers respectively to one type of media manipulation mentioned above, and, therefore, allows illustrating the most common ways of interference en detail (Langford 2001). Drawing on these particular examples and unfolding the underlying processes will enhance the understanding of commercial pressure on media outlets in general (Yin 2003, pp. 12-14).


In order to do so, this research will be conveyed as an instrumental case study (Stake 2000). Given the topic’s complexity and its contextuality (Punch 1999, p. 150), the number of variables makes statistical research inappropriate (Garson 2002). A qualitative case study, however, “has the capability of uncovering causal paths and mechanisms and through richness of detail, identifying causal influences and interaction effects” (Garson 2002). In this case, two relevant snapshot case studies will entail detailed information and will allow in depth understanding of both cases (Jensen & Rodgers 2001, p. 237). Since every instance of advertisers trying to “muscle newsrooms” occurs in differing contexts (Singer 1991, p. 25), with various actors, pre-existing power relations and business enmeshment (Stake 2000), a case study appears to be the most promising methodology to gain profound insight into the field. “A frequent criticism of case study methodology is that its dependence on a single case renders it incapable of providing a generalizing conclusion” (Tellis 1997), nevertheless, in case studies, “one is generalizing to a theory based on cases selected to represent” a theory (Garson 2002). Aim of this qualitative research is primarily to highlight the process of commercial pressure, but at the same time to provide one set of data necessary for further theoretical research. Thereby, the L.A. Times constitutes the dependent variable, whereas the most important independent variable is the gain, respectively the loss the newspaper expects by not complying with client pressure.


Excerpt out of 12 pages


The influence of advertisers on editorial content
A Case Study
Macquarie University
ICOM 891 Communication Research Methodologies
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
450 KB
7 pages text, 3 pages sources
advertising, influence, media, GM, General Motors, LA Times, case study
Quote paper
MIR, MA Sebastian Plappert (Author), 2007, The influence of advertisers on editorial content, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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