Integrity and Advertisements

A reader (Tom) sent in an interesting mailbag question that I thought deserved its own post.

Why should I ever trust the content of any site or magazine that runs advertisements? That publication is receiving money for displaying those ads, and if they’re selling their space to ads, who’s to say they’re not selling their content? That’s why I only trust books and Consumer Reports.

Tom brings up a good point, but doesn’t carry it far enough.

The Realities of Advertising

Having advertisements has little or no connection to the integrity of the information provided by a publication. Writing and publication of quality material takes a lot of work – research, crafting the articles, and finding a mechanism for putting those materials out there. Advertisements are one way for a group or organization involved in this research and writing and publication to recoup those costs. Since most websites give away their content for free to readers, for example, they have to have some way to recoup their costs: the time spent researching and writing articles and the cost of hosting the site.

Look at some real-world examples. A popular site like The Simple Dollar costs hundreds of dollars directly each month just to deliver the pages to your computer – major sites like CNN.com and ESPN.com have costs in the tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars a month just to keep their sites up and delivering content to you. This content is delivered with no monetary cost to the reader. Similarly, a magazine has to cover printing costs and shipping costs and are sold at extremely low prices by subscription.

With sources like these, you’re effectively paying for the content by viewing the ads that are included. Advertisers generally couldn’t care less about the content itself – they just want eyeballs from a certain demographic.

With sources like books and Consumer Reports, you pay for the content up front with the price of admission. You get an ad-free publication, but you’re paying them directly instead of having most (or all) of your share of the costs covered by the advertisers.

In both cases, the organization is looking for a way to recoup the costs of producing the material you’re reading – they’ve just chosen different ways to do that. Quite often, the choice was made due to the initial investment: a book publisher is putting up a lot of money up front under the belief that they’ll make the money back later from book sales, for example, and Consumer Reports is funded by Consumers Union, which is a nonprofit group that accepts donations in addition to charging a pretty stiff price for their publication compared to others.

Neither method has anything to do with the quality of the content – they’re just different ways of paying for the effort of researching articles, writing articles, editing articles, and delivering these articles to readers.

I tend to believe that my content needs to be read for free by people, so not only do I not charge for it, I send it out by email to readers and also let it be read by RSS feed. I recoup my costs with ads. It has nothing at all to do with the trustworthiness of the information contained within – if that’s faulty, that’s my own mistake, not the advertisers.

No One Is Trustworthy

Then who should you trust? The truth is you shouldn’t trust anyone. No matter what the subject, you should gather information from a number of sources and make up your own mind about it. Expecting perfectly reliable information from any one source is unrealistic for several reasons.

People make mistakes. I mess up all the time. I try very hard to present reliable and correct information, but I’m far from perfect at it. Unfortunately, everyone else who writes is in that same boat as well. We’re all human. We all make mistakes – misunderstanding facts, mis-stating things, and so on. Very, very rarely are these things negligent, but they do happen.

People have different beliefs and biases. Take politics, for example. Different sources for political news have different biases and thus will choose some issues to cover and ignore others, or they’ll cover the same issue with completely different angles. The same thing happens in almost every area. For example, I’m a big believer in avoiding debt, but some people preach the idea that debt can be used as leverage to get rich.

Some people don’t care about your best interests. Some people will say or do anything to make a buck. They’ll write stuff that’s blatantly wrong if the pay is good, and will often mix together correct stuff and false stuff just to confuse you.

What You Can Do

Regardless of how much trust you place in an author, you owe it to yourself to always double check any piece of information that is influencing you to make a significant decision. If it’s a major choice, try to use several sources, including at least a few that are off line.

Here’s an example. I deeply trust Consumer Reports, but if I’m about to make a major purchase, I don’t even fully trust them. I look at other publications, like Car and Driver and fueleconomy.gov if I’m researching a car purchase, for example, because I know that bias can slip even into something as scrutinized as the Consumer Reports car reviews. By doing this due diligence, I know I’m eliminating any bias that might be there, whether it’s founded or not.

I don’t doubt that CR does a good job and is genuinely trying to produce accurate, quality information, but no source is absolute and no source should be treated that way. On the flip side, presence of advertising doesn’t mean that a source has worthless information – it means that’s the method they’ve chosen to use to pay for the effort in producing material. The only sure sign that a source of information is worthless is the presence of faulty information on a consistent basis. And the only way to make sure you’re not caught by that trap is to investigate multiple sources of information when it’s important.

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