Resources: A Global Perspective
Government Advertising to Support Local News
By Danielle Dougall, Kendal Gee, Ryan Lee, Alisa Schaible, Anya Schiffrin with Isaiah Glick and Lei Zhu
Ongoing efforts in the U.S. to support local journalism and quality information have renewed interest in whether government advertising can be used to support local news. Yet, such programs need to be designed carefully in order to avoid editorial influence and misuse. Fortunately, there are many lessons to be learned – both cautionary and encouraging – from the experiences of other countries.
Defining our terms–Across the world, there are no standardized definitions or data on spending.
Our research did not find globally agreed-upon definitions for what constitutes government advertising nor consistent data on how much is spent and which sorts of outlets receive it.
Definitions are broad: Government advertising is any message placed by the government. Government advertising can include tender notices, public service announcements, and advertisements to promote military recruitment. It may be placed in newspapers, digital outlets, before movies, or on radio or television. In some parts of the world (including Africa, Bhutan, Latin America), such revenue was a major income source for newspapers.
What percentage of total advertising revenues comes from government sources? Estimates vary widely. In Africa, an estimated 30% of newspaper revenue for Kenyan media and 80% of ad revenue for Rwandan media comes from government sources. Historically, Africa and Latin America have been more dependent on government advertisements than other regions.
How big is the market? Numbers are hard to find.
In Canada, a 2021-2022 annual report on government advertising noted approximately $141 million CAD was spent on advertising.
In Austria, government advertising is defined as a form of media cooperation and covers any communication, announcement, notification, and recommendation directed to the public. In 2022, the Federal Chancellery and ministries spent approximately €28 million on media cooperation.
In Australia, according to Dr. Sally Young, professor of political science, University of Melbourne
- Since 2005, over A$100M spent every year on federal government campaign advertising
- State governments regularly are in top 10 advertisers
- In 2021, Australian governments spent an estimated combined total of A$610 million (including COVID vaccination ads)
- Of the $145M spent in 2020-21 by the federal government, 6% went to ethnic media and 3% to indigenous media outlets
Success stories are found in countries with strong controls and systems to discourage allocation of advertising from becoming corrupt and partisan. Successes are countries with strong allocation procedures and oversight and where the advertising reaches the audiences it is meant to reach.
Canada’s government advertising development and compliance processes are robust and involve numerous stakeholders. The country allocated some 141 million CAD in 2021-2022 and the process is seen generally as fair, transparent and beneficial to all parties involved. However, there’s room for improvement, per the Office of Auditor General’s 2019 report and 2021 statement.
Australia introduced a new communications framework and government advertising approval and procurement arrangement in 2019-20. The audit conducted by the Australian National Audit Office on government advertising from May 2019 to October 2021 found that spending was generally compliant with relevant rules and regulations, with some weaknesses in the processes for approaching and monitoring advertising campaigns.
Placing advertisements without influencing editorial content is key.
Many governments have faced significant risks and challenges — from politicization and government capture to fake sites and circulation numbers — when using advertising to support local and community news outlets. Charges of partisanship, politicization and media capture are common. Hungary and Turkey are considered two of the most egregious examples as well as the Balkans. In the past, however, Australia, Argentina and other countries have had difficulties as well and the problems have been closely studied. Publishers have sued–and won– in many countries when government adverts were taken away from their outlets for partisan reasons.
Define Clear Guidelines on Advertising
In 2011, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights made the following recommendations:
- “Clear and transparent legal frameworks that prevent arbitrariness”.
- “Specific legal rules at each level of government”.
- Definitions that establish that “govt advertising includes any communication, announcement or ad space purchased with public funds in any media and in any format”.
- “Exhaustive descriptions” covering “different stages associated with production, placement, dissemination and oversight.”
- Include principles of public interest, transparency, accountability, nondiscrimination, efficiency, good use of public funds. Lays out legitimate objectives of advertising.
A. Define Content of Advertisements
- Define legitimate objectives of government advertising (mostly used for public information, including for underserved communities, less often as a means of financial support for outlets)
- Primarily informational (such as access to public services, city agencies)
- Cannot be partisan or involve issue advocacy
- Recommendation from Canada: Consider a risk-based approach to identify which government ad campaigns have a higher risk for partisanship and should be sent for external review — consider factors of timing, audience reach, subject matter, and cost
- To avoid political capture, clear rules need to be set on when governments are advertising. Advertising should not be run in outlets during election periods.
- In Canada, government advertising is prohibited 60 days before an election writ is issued. However, this rule does not apply if the government determines the advertising relates to a “revenue-generating activity,” is “time sensitive,” or meets other criteria it may prescribe.
- In Australia, rules for government advertising vary by state. New South Wales has stronger advertising rules than most jurisdictions—in 2023 government advertising was restricted in the state from January 7, 2023 to election day on March 25, 2023.
- Clearly label ads and disclose funding source (such as a NYC government agency)
- To secure transparency, government agencies should host a centralized comprehensive database with all advertising entities, outlets, and amounts that must be accessible to the public.
B. Define Eligible Outlets
- Outlets that publish reliable, quality journalism
- Use an existing rating system, such as NewsGuard, the Journalism Trust Initiative, or The Trust Project
- Transparency of authors, editorial leadership, outlet ownership
- Demonstrated record of credible journalism (clearly identifies sources of information, does not publish false information, corrects errors promptly, avoids deceptive headlines)
- Minimum of 70% original news content
- In Canada, “Qualified Canadian Journalism Organizations” are laid out in the Income Tax Act and outlets need to apply to receive government support, such as labor tax credits.
- In France, a joint commission of newspapers and press agencies approves publications eligible for government support (from subsidies to tax credits) according to specific criteria for print and digital media, including publication frequency and coverage of information of general interest
- Outlets that prioritize underserved communities in news deserts (ethnic and non-English media)
- In line with the objective to support local journalism, consider taking a market size approach: the proportion of households subscribing to eligible outlets needs to be smaller than X% of the market share (30% in the case of direct subsidies in Sweden)
C. Define and design an allocation mechanism
- Oversight by an intermediary body (including representatives from different backgrounds, such as sciences, media practitioners, elected representatives, etc.)
- If working with external ad agencies to develop ad content, establish objective and transparent criteria for selection (to prevent corruption or preferential treatment in selection process)
- Create open submission process for the public to file complaints about government advertising (website and telephone)
- Establish independent review process (evaluate ads on impact, politicization, target analysis)
- For example, Canada’s Office of the Auditor General conducts annual reviews of government advertising policies to ensure they meet strict criteria, including non-partisanship.
- Review outcomes on an ongoing basis, monitor and communicate spending carefully and transparently
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