Opinion | On the Fox Business personal finance portal, can you tell the news about sponsored content?

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With inflation, the pandemic, and other issues affecting the economy, people need reliable advice from unbiased sources more than ever. The proliferation of free advice online makes it seem easy to access wise advice, but it also makes it difficult to determine the quality of the advice.

Many online influencers make their living through sponsorship deals or affiliate links, that is, they receive a commission for leads or sales from the services or companies they feature. And the sponsorship of some content is not always clear. Consider how some articles published on the Fox Business site, where one might expect direct financial advice, funneled business to Credible, a loan comparison site in which Fox Business’s parent corporation bought a majority stake in 2019.

Fox Business publishes a personal finance vertical that is prominently promoted at the top of its home page. But readers wouldn’t know the content is sponsored by Credible unless they click on the personal finance landing page and see the words “powered by Credible” in the upper right corner or hover over “Advertiser Disclosure.” Or if they see the “Sponsored by credible” embedded in the thumbnail illustrations next to the headlines.

If you click directly on an article, like one published this week on “5 New Year’s Financial Resolutions for Beginners to Develop Better Financial Habits in 2022,” they should 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.”

Sponsored articles often have titles that make them sound like news. “Warren, Schumer strongly urge Biden to extend student loan forbearance and write off debt,” for example, was published in December. The writer identifies herself in her Fox Business biography as “a personal finance reporter for Fox Business.” (Her signature of hers also bears the “credible sponsored” disclosure.)

This reads like a straightforward news article until, in four paragraphs, the report addresses the topic of the article and postulates Credible as the solution:

With federal student loan payments set to resume in less than 50 days, borrowers may be considering alternative debt payment options, such as refinancing. Keep in mind that private student loans are not eligible for federal protections like administrative forbearance, income-based repayment, and some student loan forgiveness programs. You can explore student loan refinancing rates from real private lenders in the table below and visit Credible to see offers tailored to you without hurting your credit score.”

A November article titled “Increases in Social Security Payments Can Be Offset by These 5 Expenses” contains similar language:

“If you’re having a hard time keeping up with Social Security retirement benefit expenses, consider taking out a personal loan while interest rates are at record 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 that they initiated through their website. While the pieces carry the tagline “Sponsored by Credible” next to the author’s name, they also appear through the Google News search engine, where the Credible tagline isn’t always obvious. On the Fox Business site, topic pages like this one for student loans feature a mix of traditional news reporting and Credible-sponsored content.

The result is articles that can easily be taken advantage of by less knowledgeable readers. “I’m in awe,” says Chris Roush, dean of the Quinnipiac University School of Communications and author of the forthcoming book “The Future of Business Journalism: Why It Matters for Wall Street and Main Street.” I think the average consumer is aware that the content is being used to help Credible grow and help Credible generate revenue.”

Financial literacy is often low even among those in good circumstances. And since people who are in financial trouble are particularly vulnerable, “I think that puts a huge responsibility on those who are pushing that kind of information to do the right thing for 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 that sponsored content is legal as long as it is clearly disclosed as advertising, which Fox Business does close to each author’s signature. When I inquired about the content, Fox Business sent this statement:

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

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

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

Yes, sponsored content and articles with affiliate links exist across the entire media spectrum. (Even in 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 thing to feature a product in the middle of a post that could reasonably be mistaken for news content. Especially when the advertiser is partly owned by the organization that publishes the content.

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

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