Local newspapers, concealed advertising, journalism ethics, and why they matter for effective climate action
A Case Study in dodgy local newspaper practice
Substitute the names of your local fuel-selling supermarket chains for the ones in the headline below:.
Why you should not just use petrol from Tesco, Sainsbury’s and ASDAFrom The Wiltshire Times, published by Newsquest
How would you react if you read this headline in your local newspaper? Is it not a bit weird? Why would your local rag be not advising you, but telling you where you should buy your gasoline?
Before we get into the article itself, did you find yourself having to read the headline twice?
Given current events, any headline featuring ‘petrol’ and big brands is likely to attract your attention. But did you have to go back to check you understood it?
Headlines compress grammar, but how often do you say the words ‘you should not just use’ in daily speech?
It’s grammatically correct, but in the way a robot, rather than an experienced journalist, might generate a headline
Even if you grasped its meaning first time round, what kind of article would you expect to now read, given the rest of the news out there at the moment?
Given what you know about local, domestic and international events, what factors do you think your local newspaper (in this case the Wiltshire Times, covering a UK county) might be urging you to consider?
Thou shalt not pretend ads are journalism…
Bear in mind the headline starts ‘Why you should…’.
This is a standard clickbait formulation, but any use of the word ‘should’ implies some degree of import of an objective truth, and/or that it’s delivered from some kind of moral high ground.
- You should brush your teeth every day.
- You should check the sources of your information.
- You should defend democracy from dictatorship.
‘You Should Not’ isn’t quite as heavy as Thou Shalt Not, but functionally it’s in the same ballpark.
‘You Should Not’ is usually followed by something pretty definitive, which is what makes the next word, the qualifier ‘just’, a bit weird. Consider:
- Thou Shalt Not Just Covet Thy Neighbour’s Wife.
- Thou Shalt Not Just Mollycoddle Oligarchs.
- You Should Not Just Murder Civilians.
Still, journalists will always tell you they don’t always get to write their headlines. What about the substance of the article?
- Does it suggest how local consumer activism might help Ukrainian refugees?
- Does it urge a selective boycott of certain multinational corporations still invested in Russian oil companies?
- Does it suggest switching to alternative, renewable fuels or transport that would reduce our geopolitical dependence on brutal autocracies?
Enough suspense. If you don’t have time to read all 240 words in the following article, we can summarise them:
If you love your car, buy brand-name fuel.
Don’t believe us? Here are 14 of those words:
‘the key difference is in the performance additives added to the base unleaded fuel’.
Who’s to blame?
To be clear, we’re not having a go at the bylined ‘Trainee Reporter’ who wrote the article.
Looking at the article, it’s even reasonable to question if he exists.
Why would we doubt his existence? Poorly-written local newspaper headlines have long been a comedy staple, but do these sound like the kind of sentences that would be written by a cub reporter from Wiltshire?
Or do they have the ring of an algorithmic transformer like GPT-3, AKA The Robot That Could Break The Internet, that has been trained on the entire worldwide web?
Are these the kind of sentences a human, even a recent journalism graduate, would write?
- Generally, supermarket fuel should not be considered below par of branded competitors.
- All fuel will have performance additives added to it but the specific formula differs between them, meaning the type and quantity of these additives is different in supermarket fuel as it is to branded fuel.
- Super-unleaded fuel has a higher amount of these performance additives however only high-performance, and some imported vehicles will really benefit from this more expensive fuel option.
We’re pointing out the following:
- Wiltshire Times is owned by Newsquest
- Newsquest is owned by Gannett
- Gannett is owned by New Media Investment Group
- NMIG is a NY-based private equity group (hedge fund)
- Nothing in this article is ‘news’
- The article benefits Big Oil companies
- Big Oil companies are major advertisers in NMIG publications
- If a robot didn’t write this article, trainee reporters need a lot more supervision.
Why this matters for effective climate action
So, one little article in one local paper. But 70-90% of all local papers are owned by corporate conglomerates like NMIG.
- If you were the Business or Media Head of the Three-Headed Beast, would you be happy with this article?
- If you’re not benefitting from the status quo, like the Three-Headed Beasts, are you happy with this article?
- If you’d like to see change, why not tell the Government Head?