Media Ethics Prof on Star Tribune's Anti-Trans Ad: "Readers Deserve An Explanation"

This ad was paid for by the Minnesota Child Protection League, "A group of veteran religious right and tea party activists."

This ad was paid for by the Minnesota Child Protection League, "A group of veteran religious right and tea party activists."

The Star Tribune created quite a stir by running a full-page anti-transgender ad in Sunday's paper, but when we sought an explanation from Steve Yaeger, Strib VP of marketing and public relations, he wasn't interested in talking about it.

"If you were doing a story on how media of all kinds (broadcast, print, digital) handle campaign and advocacy advertising, I'd consider how we could contribute to the conversation," he wrote in an email. "But I don't think that's what you're doing."

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That we-won't-talk-about-it line is a disservice to the paper's readers, argues Jane Kirtley, the Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the U of M's School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

"From an ethical standpoint, I know any publisher that is going to run a controversial ad has a responsibility to explain to readers what their policy is," she tells us. "That's transparency, and I'm not being judgmental about whether they should or shouldn't have [run the ad], but I think their readers deserve an explanation."

"Some people assume that this was a purely economic decision -- they're getting big bucks for a full-age ad and need the money -- we don't know [without knowing specifics of the paper's ad policy], but I think readers have an interest in knowing the answer to that," Kirtley continues. "Given the controversial nature of it, and the ongoing debate, it would be appropriate for any newspaper having run this ad, incumbent upon them, to tell readers what the editorial board is thinking [in addition to the publisher]."

Of course, what an advertising department or publisher deems appropriate is one thing, what an editorial board thinks might be another. That distinction, however, is lost upon many readers, Kirtley points out.

"A lot of people would assume that [running it] is endorsing the content of the ad, and that may or may not be the case," she says.

With regard to the question of whether the ad is appropriate, Kirtley says she can see both sides of the argument.

"I can make the case that it's useful to put controversial ideas before the public because it's a great way to challenge them," she says. "If you look at the shift about gay marriage, some would argue that's because the hateful speech was out there to be criticized and taken down... [But] several of my students basically said they would never consider it ethical for a paper to run an ad like that, that's hateful and inflammatory."

The Strib's "Publisher's Standard Advertising Terms and Conditions" says, "Publisher reserves the unlimited right, whenever and as often as Publisher chooses, to alter any one or more of the Publications, Services and rates as it sees fit, including... discontinuing or modifying any advertising."

The Strib has used that authority to refuse ads or stop running them in the past. Why didn't higher-ups do that in the case of the anti-transgender ad? Since they aren't talking, your guess is as good as ours.

Send your story tips to the author, Aaron Rupar. Follow him on Twitter @atrupar.