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May 12, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:17am

Affiliate links not clearly labelled as ads at leading news publishers, NewsGuard

By Aisha Majid

Four of the UK’s top news sites are failing to clearly label sponsored content in a way that distinguishes it from editorial content, according to an independent rating agency.

Using the ratings produced by technology company NewsGuard Press Gazette found that four of the UK’s top ten digital newsbrands based on audience – The Sun, Daily Express, Telegraph and Metro – did not make it sufficiently clear to readers when they were reading commercial content. Among the top 50 sites, seven failed the test.

According to NewsGuard, among the reasons a site might fall short are failure to clearly distinguish paid articles from other editorial content on the same page, placing affiliate links within articles without disclosing the commercial relationship, or labelling commercial content using terms that the average reader would not understand such as "from our partners" or "around the web."

We contacted the four top ten UK newsbrands brands who fell down on this criteria. Three declined to comment.  A spokesperson for The Sun said that: "We are content that our editorial and advertising and advertorial content is appropriately signposted."

Overall NewsGuard considers all four of the top ten outlets that fall down on on commercial content labelling to be trustworthy news sources.  The Sun for example receives 69.5 out of a possible 100 points for its trustworthiness and is considered to maintain basic standards of credibility and transparency, albeit with some exceptions.

NewsGuard however, singled out a number of articles where affiliate links - which often help publishers earn a commission from sales made - were included in articles such as a piece on Christmas shopping cashbacks but not labelled as such. Another article about retailer Wilko's Christmas tree sale contained many links to the retailer's site but was not marked anywhere as containing affiliate links.

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The Telegraph makes it clear when content is paid for. Some articles however, containing affiliate links which can earn the publisher money such as a 2021 article on Cyber Monday and Black Friday deals do not disclose this until the reader has reached the bottom instead of at the top.

A number of Express articles were also only found to disclose commission-earning links at the bottom.

Other articles in some of these sites and others further down the list of 50 were flagged by NewsGuard as potentially being unlabelled advertorials by nature of their content and the inclusion of links to products and services. These included, for example, several travel articles. The publishers in question however, did not confirm or deny this when approached by NewsGuard.

The Advertising Standards Association has specific rules to help readers identify when they're seeing an ad, including on news sites.  Advertorials should always made it clear that the content is an ad. Articles based primarily around affiliate links (like some of those we have highlighted above) need to make this clear to readers before they start reading such an article. Articles that are not solely written to promote affiliate links should make it clear which parts of the article are selling to readers. The ASA considers disclosures at the bottom of articles to be insufficient.

The ASA has in the past banned publisher content for failing to meeting its standards on transparency. In 2019 the regulatory body for example banned an article on Black Friday deals at Currys PC World on liverpoolecho.co.uk for failing to disclose marketing communications in the piece.

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