A grad student doing some research emailed me today to ask what I thought about media web sites including pre-roll advertising on breaking news video. The impetus was apparently an ad that a news site showed as a pre-roll before news about the Virginia Tech shootings. Some were clearly offended.
The argument against advertising in such situations, of course, would be that it is profiting from a tragedy. Furthermore, one could argue that the imperative in a breaking news situation should be to deliver news quickly, not advertising.
There is no clear cut ethical problem with pre-roll advertising in a breaking news situation, even when it may be a horrible tragedy. Nor do I have a broader objection to pre-roll ads on web video, as others may. Content creators have a right to extract value from the content they create, whether that may be through advertising or some other means.
It will not surprise readers of this space, however, to know that I believe that individual media properties must make individual decisions on a case-by-case basis. For instance, a student-run media outlet at Virginia Tech may well want to elect to remove advertising for appearance sake in the wake of a tragedy like the one that occurred. Similarly, readers will recall that the major networks went into wall-to-wall news coverage without advertising for several days after September 11.
Nevertheless, a media outlet provides no less of a service to its readers/viewers during a time of tragedy or crisis than at any other time. Indeed, it could be argued that media outlets provide their greatest service and value in such situations. While it might be unseemly to initiate advertising only in a breaking news situation, maintaining advertising policies throughout one should not be frowned upon. Without revenue, these sites would cease to exist and the news, information, and video would not be available.