The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion On Fox Business’s personal finance portal, can you tell the news stories from sponsored content?

The proliferation of free financial guidance online makes it seem easy to access wise counsel. (Washington Post illustration/iStock image)
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With inflation, the pandemic and other issues affecting the economy, people need trustworthy advice from unbiased sources more than ever. The proliferation of free guidance online makes it seem easy to access wise counsel — but has also made it hard to determine the quality of the advice.

Many online influencers earn their keep via endorsement deals or affiliate links — that is, they receive a commission for leads or sales from the services or companies they highlight. And the sponsorship of some content isn’t always clear. Consider how some articles published on the Fox Business site, where one might expect straightforward finance advice, funnel business to Credible, a loan comparison site in which Fox Business’s parent corporation bought a majority stake in 2019.

Fox Business publishes a vertical on personal finance that’s promoted prominently at the top of its homepage. But readers would not know that content is sponsored by Credible unless they click through to the personal-finance landing page and notice the words “powered by Credible” at the top-right corner or hover over the “Advertiser Disclosure.” Or if they spot the “Sponsored by Credible” embedded in thumbnail illustrations next to headlines.

If they happen to click straight onto an article, such as one published this week on “5 New Year’s financial resolutions for beginners to build better money habits in 2022,” they need to notice the disclosure in the byline: “Sponsored by Credible - which is majority owned by our parent, Fox Corporation, and is solely responsible for its services.”

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The sponsored articles are often headlined in ways that make them seem like news. “Warren, Schumer strongly urge Biden to extend student loan forbearance and cancel debt,” for example, was published in December. The writer is identified in her Fox Business biography as “a personal finance reporter for Fox Business.” (Her byline also carries the “sponsored by Credible” disclosure.)

This reads like a straight news article until, four paragraphs in, the report refers to the topic of the piece and posits Credible as the solution:

With federal student loan payments set to resume in less than 50 days, borrowers may be considering alternative debt repayment options like refinancing. Note that private student loans are ineligible for federal protections like administrative forbearance, income-driven repayment and some student loan forgiveness programs. You can browse student loan refinance rates from real private lenders in the table below, and visit Credible to see offers tailored to you without impacting your credit score.”

A November article headlined “Social Security payment increases may be offset by these 5 expenses" contains similar language:

“If you are struggling to keep up with expenses under Social Security retirement benefits, consider taking out a personal loan while interest rates are at historic lows to help consolidate other high-interest debt. Visit Credible to compare lenders and find your personalized interest rate.”

Credible receives a payment from financial institutions if customers obtain a loan, credit card or mortgage they initiated through its website. While the pieces carry a “Sponsored by Credible” tagline next to the author’s name, they also come up through the Google News search engine, where the Credible tagline is not always apparent. On the Fox Business site, topic pages such as this one for student loans present a mix of traditional news reports and Credible-sponsored content.

The result is articles that can easily take advantage of less-than-savvy readers. “I’m blown away,” says Chris Roush, dean of the School of Communications at Quinnipiac University and author of the forthcoming book “The Future of Business Journalism: Why It Matters for Wall Street and Main Street.“ “I don’t think the average consumer is cognizant that the content is being used to help Credible grow and to help Credible generate revenue.”

Financial literacy is often low among even those in good circumstances. And since people who are in financial trouble are particularly vulnerable, “I think that puts a huge responsibility on those that are pushing out that kind of information to do right by people," says Jonathan Mintz, president of the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund, an organization that works with low- and moderate-income consumers.

The Federal Trade Commission says sponsored content is legal as long as it is clearly disclosed as advertising — which Fox Business does near each author’s byline. When I asked about the content, Fox Business sent this statement:

“FOX Corporation, like many large companies, commonly cross-promotes its majority owned businesses across its owned and operated platforms, including FoxBusiness.com. All Credible content that appears there is fully vetted internally and includes the conspicuous legal disclosure required to ensure readers are aware that the content is sponsored by a majority owned entity of FOX Corporation. Consistent with this practice, at the top of the Personal Finance page on FOX Business.com, it clearly states that the page is ‘Powered by Credible.’ This is in addition to an advertiser disclosure stating the page is sponsored by Credible, which is majority owned by FOX Corporation.”

Credible did not respond to requests for comment. Its website describes Fox Corp.'s investment as “helping us spread the word about our marketplaces.”

Readers frequently don’t notice disclosures. Even when readers do realize the content is advertising, the acknowledgment of a conflict of interest sometimes has the perverse effect of making them trust the information more than they otherwise would. A 2018 study in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes found that readers expressed more confidence and faith in recommendations on beauty blogs when a sponsorship was disclosed than when there was no such label on the content.

Yes, sponsored content and articles with affiliate links exist across the media spectrum. (Including at The Washington Post.) But it’s one thing for a brand partner to sponsor a piece that’s clearly a promotion, and it’s another to pitch a product in the middle of a post that can reasonably be mistaken for news content. Especially when the advertiser is partly owned by the organization publishing the content.

After years writing about personal finance and reading others in this field, I think what Fox Business is doing here is wrong. Events of the past year-plus have upped the financial ante for many people. The need for trustworthy financial guidance is greater than ever. Fox Business, it seems, sees that sad reality as a business opportunity.

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