ThisDay certainly stood out the other day. From page one onwards, almost every page was printed against a yellow background.
The dramatic display came to the paper's readers courtesy of the cellphone network MTN, whose slogan "Y'ello" at the bottom of the page explained it all. "The day belongs to all of us," said the payoff line generously. Inside, there were several full-page ads – all in yellow, of course.
It was the network's 10th birthday, and it released its results at the same time. They were dramatic. With a R4.3 billion profit, it overtook rival Vodacom in revenues and profits. No wonder MTN was in the mood to celebrate.
The story led the paper's business section. And in the next edition of the paper – which returned generally to the normal shade of paper – a (yellow) full-page MTN ad faced a page of social pictures – from an MTN celebration of its results.
One can only guess how much it all cost. The paper has been struggling to make inroads into the advertising markets, and has been sustained by massive subsidies from its Nigerian proprietor, Nduka Obaigbena. It must have seemed like a very attractive deal.
Justice Malala, ThisDay's editor, says the yellow edition was very popular: it sold twice as well as on normal days. He says that day's journalism was not influenced in any way: "Editorial was sacrosanct." The decision to lead business with MTN was taken on news value alone, he says. "There was no other story in business that day," says Malala.
And placement of the social pictures a few days later was simply coincidence.
There's no reason to doubt Malala on this point. The network's results really were a major story, and ran prominently in other business media, too. The company simply timed its innovative advertising concept to coincide with its good news story.
But even if no editorial decision was actually affected by the lucrative deal, readers may remain suspicious. It just looks like too much of a coincidence.
The ethical issue here is independence. The public expects journalists to report fairly, without being influenced by any personal or corporate interests. Audiences' trust depends absolutely on the extent to which they see our work as independent of outside agendas.
In this case, no matter how loudly Malala protests, it looks like the paper sold its independence for a large cheque. True, this is just a perception. But the problem is that a paper's reputation is built on perceptions, and these are fickle things.
Trust is built on what people think of us, and it is just as important to avoid the perception of conflict of interest as it is to avoid the reality.
Die Burger's code of ethics captures the distinction by posing two questions: "Can you say in all honesty that the relevant favour or offer – whether it's a cup of coffee, a cigar, a week in Mauritius or a visit to the Middle East on the invitation of the Arab League or to Israel on the invitation of the Jewish Board of Deputies – won't have an influence on your impartiality? Will your readers be sure of your credibility, even if you don't have any doubts?"
One question for actual undue influence, one for the perception of undue influence.
ThisDay is not alone in blurring the traditional lines between advertising and editorial. Business Day recently featured a wraparound that was an exact copy of its actual front page – except that it was darkened by shadows of aircraft, thanks to SAA. Inside, you got the real front page, without the shadows. And the Sunday Times's Lifestyle section has more than once featured wraparound front pages bought by Woolworths.
Does any of this really matter? Or is it simply old-fashioned to worry about a distinction between advertising and editorial that has become increasingly artificial? After all, newspapers are products that need to be sold, and editors are increasingly expected to keep an eye on the commercial interests of their paper. Audiences, some may argue, are sophisticated enough to understand.
I think these issues do still matter. The relationship of trust that exists between journalists and audiences is fundamental. Without it, we may as well shut up shop.
Marketers understand this very well. They generate ever new ideas for blurring the line between advertising and editorial precisely because they want some of the credibility of the news to rubs off on their clients. And they are prepared to pay very good money for the association.
Their gain is our loss. In the short-term, the money's good to have. But in the long-term, there is real damage to our credibility.
Perhaps ThisDay should have thought twice before allowing MTN to yellow its pages.
* Krüger teaches journalism at Wits University. His book on journalism ethics, Black,White and Grey, is due to be published later this year. This column first appeared on this website on 17 June 2004