San Jose Mercury News: Credibility suffers when content and advertising clash

Did you read the news story about the sexual harassment charges flying at one of America’s most prominent college campuses?


The writers and editors of the San Jose Mercury News knew a great deal about the story. They did an excellent job producing the report.

But is the newspaper aware of questionable sponsored advertising that appears with the story and others like it on the San Jose Mercury News website?  

The San Jose Mercury News report detailed the firing of a University of California, Berkeley assistant basketball coach who admitted propositioning a reporter for sex.

It was a solid story by competent journalists at the San Jose Mercury News. It included specific facts, good sourcing of information, and efforts were made to contact all parties involved in the case.

Here’s the story lede:

“In an explosive admission, fired UC Berkeley assistant basketball coach Yann Hufnagel told a campus investigator that he tried to lure a female reporter up to his apartment for sex after a game last year and later joked in a text about having her over for sex with him and his friend.”

The story reported new details that emerged last week after the university’s release of documents from the sexual harassment case that cost Hufnagel his job. It happened days before the U.C. Berkeley Bears men’s team began play in the NCAA basketball tournament.

The story also mentioned:

“But the revelations come less than week after a lawsuit brought to light the minor sanctions handed to former law school dean Sujit Choudhry after a campus investigation found he had routinely subjected his assistant to unwanted hugs, kisses and caresses.”

“Also last year, another powerful faculty member — astronomer Geoff Marcy — was allowed to keep his job after a campus investigation found that he sexually harassed students for nearly a decade. Marcy resigned in October after the news caused an international outcry and the majority of his colleagues called for his termination.”

Questionable advertising?

I mention these details because one component of sexual harassment often involves the sexual objectification of those who are targets of harassment. That’s why I had questions about the sponsored (also called “click bait”) advertising that accompanied the San Jose Mercury News sexual harrassment story. It looked like this:Mercury_Selected_for_you_by_a_sponsor


Here’s the sexual objectification definition

“Sexual objectification is the act of treating a person as an instrument of sexual pleasure. Objectification more broadly means treating a person as a commodity or an object without regard to their personality or dignity.”- Wikipedia

Here are two more examples of the San Jose Mercury News click bait advertising that rotate into its story about sexual harassment at U.C. Berkeley: 








Here’s another San Jose Mercury News story about a San Jose high school assistant track coach arrested on suspicion of having sex with two students. 


Here’s the advertising that goes with the story.   


It’s not only the San Jose Mercury News. Other news websites carry similar sponsored advertising and often don’t know what advertising is paired with the news stories they produce. That’s not an excuse. It’s an observation. It can also be a credibility problem for news organizations. Would they knowingly allow sexually suggestive advertising to be paired with a story about sexual harassment. Would they allow an advertisement about the “31 Richest Adult Entertainers Of All Time” appearing with a news story about an assistant track coach charged with suspicion of having sexual relationships with two students to be in good taste? If so, why? If not, who’s minding the content on the news organization’s website?

I emailed and left phone messages for Randy Keith, the managing editor responsible for all digital content on the San Jose Mercury News website. I asked him to answer these questions:

Are you aware of the advertising content that appear with your news stories on your website?

What written policies and criteria do you use to consider the appropriateness of advertising content in its pairing with news content that appear on your website?

Who decides which ads are displayed with news content on your website?

Does someone at your organization screen the advertising content appearing on your website with the news stories produced by your reporters?

How much advertising revenue is generated by sponsored ads appearing on the San Jose Mercury News website?

After two days, I had not received a reply. I then called the Mercury News “breaking news” desk and spoke with a helpful staffer. He said he would forward my emails to Keith and Bert Robinson, managing editor of print for the Mercury News. Robinson is responsible for the newspaper’s Bay Area and statewide news coverage. Another 24 hours passed. I received no reply.

Here’s something else to consider: The San Jose Mercury News makes money from those sponsored click bait advertising. I’m guessing quite a bit of money. According to Cision Digital Research, The Mercury News’ website averages 1.5 million unique visitors each month. Every time a reader clicks one of those sponsored story links, the newspaper makes money.

You’ll have to ask the publisher of the San Jose Mercury News to tell you exactly how much they make from those questionable ads.  Then ask them why they allow this to happen at all.

About Bernard McCoy

My views are my own and not a reflection of my employer. I'm a professor of Journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I've also been a working journalist for the past 29 years. I have covered news stories in war zones, reported on human and natural disasters, presidential conventions, a presidential inauguration and the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. My career experiences include work as an award-winning documentary producer, television news reporter, photographer, producer, and anchor. I worked at WIBW-TV, Topeka, KS., KCTV, Kansas City, MO, WKBD-TV, Detroit, MI., WILX-TV, Lansing, MI. and WBNS-TV, Columbus, OH. I have also worked as a contributing reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, Associated Press, CBS, CNN, the Ohio News Network and lecture at the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communications. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree in telecommunications management from Michigan State University.
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