The sun sets amid thunderstorms outside Newark, N.J.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/6/2011 7:02:00 PM ET 2011-07-06T23:02:00

Advertisers fled British tabloid News of the World, and stock in its parent company, media giant News Corp., fell Wednesday amid a growing phone-hacking scandal.

Ford, Mitsubishi Motors and Virgin Holidays are among the marketers who have declared they will pull advertising from the newspaper after police opened an investigation into whether news staff illegally hacked into a murdered teenage girl's cell phone. Other advertisers said they would wait to see the results of the police probe.

The widening scandal also has sparked an online movement, calling for the resignation of former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks, urging consumers to hold advertisers accountable, or seeking a boycott of all properties controlled by News Corp. and its chairman Rupert Murdoch. Brooks, now News Corp.'s most senior newspaper executive in Britain, said she would not step down , and Murdoch issued a statement of support for her.

One British freelance writer harnessed the power of Twitter to direct public anger and put pressure on the many undecided advertisers. Melissa Harrison wrote a piece in The Guardian describing how she built an online following of people who, like her, were disgusted by what she considers the unethical reporting standards of News of the World.

"The only way to show the company how people really felt was by hitting them where it hurts: their wallets," she wrote. "And while I didn't think I could reach their regular readers to ask them not to buy the paper, I realised who I could influence, with a following wind and enough people behind me: their advertisers."

She created a web page with tweets such as "Dear @MorrisonsOffers, after new hacking revelations why are you refusing to withdraw your advertising from the toxic brand that is #notw?" At the end of every tweet is a "Tweet This!" button to make it easier for people to voice their concerns to advertisers.

The move appeared to be generating support, with dozens of retweets on one typical posting.

Jake Batsell, a digital journalism professor at Southern Methodist University, said the outrage factor is higher than usual due to the facts of the case. Published reports say a newspaper researcher erased voice messages to make room for more, giving the parents of the missing girl false hope that she was still alive.

"The explosion seems even more intense than usual because we're not talking about a celebrity being victimized, we're talking about a normal person who could be anyone," said Batsell.

In an effort to capitalize on the outrage sweeping Britain, car company Mitsubishi not only said it would cancel its advertising in News of the World but also responded to a Facebook user's suggestion and announced it would donate the ad dollars to a charity.

"They're likely to get a good PR bounce on social media for at least a few days because they reacted decisively and clearly in the same spirit as what the consensus seems to be online," Batsell said.

Whether this "visceral explosion of disgust" on social media will persist remains to be seen, Batsell said.

Although News of the World is only a tiny part of News Corp., the parent company's stock fell 3 percent in U.S. trading, partly on concern that the scandal could damage the company's efforts to complete a takeover of British Sky Broadcasting, a satellite television company.

Kelly McBride, a media ethics specialist at the Poynter Institute, said the scandal is unlikely to have a long-term impact on the company.

"Decisions to spend ad dollars are not moral decisions, they're business decisions," she said. "And on a temporary basis, any company can make a moral statement, but in the long term, it's just hard to do business that way."

But there's no doubt that the business pressures for news publications are constantly changing. McBride said right now News of the World will face pressure to produce good, ethical journalism, but a year ago, the pressure was to get the scoop and get information that other people didn't have.

"It turns out capitalism has more to do with journalism ethics than journalism ethics has to do with profit," she said.

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