Student media guide to publishing political ads

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Political advertisements in student newspapers have become more common over the last decade, as local candidates acknowledge the importance student press play in their communities.

Chris Richert is president of the College Media Business and Advertising Managers, Inc. and the general manager for The State Newsat Michigan State University, East Lansing. Richert has seen a growing trend of political advertisements in student papers and predicts it will become more common in future elections.

Richert has been in the collegiate advertising realm for 20 years and said that while every school has a different advertising policy, there are some basic rules anyone considering running political ads should follow.

Equal access, equal cost

Richert stressed that publications must provide every candidate the opportunity to place an ad regardless of the editorial board’s endorsements of candidates. Ad prices must also be the same for every candidate.

Papers that are biased in their sale of advertising spots and don’t treat every candidate’s advertising request equally are considered in violation the Federal Election Commissions advertising rules and can face financial and legal consequences.

Have a written policy

Having a policy agreed upon by the staff is incredibly valuable because it lays out specific guidelines for how the publication deals with ads.

A 2018 study by the American Press Institute’s Media Insight Project found that people are strikingly unfamiliar with terms that many journalists use, and the more transparency and explanation offered, the better.

Elissa Yancey is one of the leaders of the Poynter College Media Project, a year-long program that provides learning opportunities and mentorship to independent student-run publications. She says it’s important not just to have a policy, but to make sure the audience understands it – don’t assume everyone understands the difference between political advertisements and endorsements.

“A lot of times what student journalism and journalism as a whole does is make assumptions about what our audience knows and doesn’t know about ethical guidelines, practices, and principle[s],” Yancey said. “I think one way to really bridge that divide between us and our audiences is to be very clear on our ethical and advertising policies.”

Yancey stresses that everyone in the organization must understand and agree to its guidelines, principles and policies, specifically advertising and editorial policies.

She encourages that policies be openly shared with readers. When posting political advertisements, make sure it is clear somewhere that the advertisement is not representative of the opinions of the paper. The same goes for editorial content. If the paper publishes an editorial endorsement of a political candidate, make sure there is a disclaimer stating that the views presented do not represent the views of the staff and the paper as a whole. Readers might not always read the policies and disclaimers, but having them present is still important.

The Daily Nebraskan at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, has its own policy handbook that is available online for anyone to see. They also share policies in their publication, like disclaimers that advertisements are not the opinion of the paper.

Ben Larsen, the managing editor of the Daily Nebraskan, said while the monthly magazine does not publish political endorsements, they do publish advertisements for candidates who want to take out an ad. Larsen said their policy complies with FCC standards. They do not allow libelous advertisements or reference to opposing parties.

Developing your publication’s policy

If a student publication does not have a policy in place regarding political advertisements, Richert said its best to sit out this cycle and develop a strategy as soon as the 2018 election is over.

“I would just make sure that you start clean following that election and create a political policy that you use going forward,” Richert said. He also recommends contacting local and state press associations for guidance when developing your new policy. SPLC offers its own model policy to protect student news media.

Organizations that can provide policy advice include:

Keep departments separate

The Minnesota Daily at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, houses its news staff and advertising staff separately and does not hold meetings between the groups.

“So we have a fully separate business division of the MN daily and the only connecting link between business and editorial is me and the business operations, officer. I don’t oversee them,” said Editor-in-Chief, Kelly Busche. “It’s something where the only way our reporters see our advertisements are when they are out in the paper.”

“You always like to have a separation between your advertising and business side of the house to make sure it doesn’t influence your editorial side of the house,” Richert said.

Last updated October 2018.