Oct 23, 2014 · 2 minutes

As difficult as it is for journalistic purists to accept, sponsored content (or "native advertising" or "advertorials" -- pick your poison) has become an inescapable form of monetization in the new media economy.

But "sponsored content" covers a wide spectrum. Sometimes an advertiser will sponsor a series of stories but leave editorial control entirely in the hands of the news outlet (that's how Pando does it). Other times, articles are written wholesale by the sponsor. Often they are innocent enough, like this Buzzfeed post prepared by Starbucks' marketing team called "10 Summer Emojis That Should Definitely Exist." Other times, depending on the sponsor and its message, native advertising is downright insidious. Last year, the Atlantic published an advertorial written by Church of Scientology leader David Miscavige. Because of the controversies surrounding the Church, not least of which its aggressive litigiousness toward journalists, the post sparked widespread public outcry and the Atlantic removed it. That was almost certainly the most egregious example of native advertising we've seen thus far.

Until now.

Today, the technology news site GigaOM published a piece of sponsored content from the most controversial government organization of the past year and a half: The National Security Agency.

The post is innocuous enough -- it's essentially a job listing for cloud computing jobs at the Agency. But a news organization (particularly a tech journalism outlet that covers companies with close ties to the US surveillance apparatus), entering into an advertising agreement with the NSA is wildly inappropriate. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the NSA's massive surveillance dragnet makes it harder for sources to trust journalists. Making matters worse is the Obama administration's aggressive crackdown on whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, which Washington Post Vice President Leonard Downie says has a chilling effect on investigative journalism. I mean, can you think of an organization more at odds with journalism than the NSA?

That's why entering into an agreement with the Agency constitutes a massive conflict of interest, especially for a tech press that is often charged with treating its subjects too softly. I would hope that the contract between the NSA and GigaOM stipulates that the Agency will never try to dictate editorial decisions at the outlet. But what's to stop the NSA from threatening to pull its ads the next time GigaOM publishes a story that reflects negatively on the Agency? Maybe GigaOM would capitulate to the NSA, maybe it wouldn't. But even a small incentive for an organization to pull punches when it comes to reporting on the some of the most powerful people in the world should be enough for news readers to lose trust in that outlet.

It's true that even in the pre-digital days, advertising interests could pose a potential threat to journalistic integrity. And to use Pando as an example again, the sponsor of our "What's in a Name?" series could bristle if we give them negative coverage and refuse to renew a sponsorship agreement. But advertisers, if they have integrity, will not balk at honest reporting. They already have PR teams to plant press releases with tech journalists to encourage favorable coverage. Smart marketing departments should prefer to be associated with news organizations people can trust.

But integrity, at least when it comes to openly disseminating information between governments, journalists, and citizens, is not in the NSA's blood. That's why GigaOM must sever its advertising association with the NSA and remove the post. Because how can anybody trust a tech site that aligns itself with the most anti-journalist organization in the world?

[illustration by Brad Jonas]