Tuesday, September 14, 2010

'Paid news' undermines the foundation of journalism

We live in the age of institutionalized corruption. From politicians to judges, from senior bureaucrats to policemen, from corporate tycoons to petty officials, everyone it seems has a price. As journalists, our profession demands that we inquire, interrogate and expose corruption.
So, when a Madhu Koda is jailed we rejoice that the law has caught up with a former chief minister. When allegations against a judge lead to impeachment we express our satisfaction. When an infotech czar is punished we are hopeful of improved standards of corporate governance. But what happens when the camera turns inwards, when news itself has a price tag attached to it?
A corrupt politician can be jailed, so can a business leader. A judge can be impeached, a babu can be tried under the prevention of corruption act. But what happens to the editor/reporter who brazenly endorses cash for news ? The recent controversy over 'paid news' that is undermining the very foundation of journalism strikes at the heart of a concept that we swear by: the principle of accountability. What moral right do we have in demanding action against the other pillars of our democracy when we wink at the gathering storm in our own profession?
Journalists as a tribe tend to be cynical and self-righteous in equal measure. The cynicism leads us to believe that the glass is always half empty. Our self-righteous streak drives us into spasms of rage when we are accused of lowering ethical standards. The 'paid news' crisis calls for neither an overdose of cynicism nor another bout of self-righteousness. What is required is a robust pragmatism that accepts the problem confronting the profession, but also sees it as an opportunity to restore falling credibility.
The first step is to understand what is 'paid news'. Some recent articles have tended to confuse legitimate 'advertorials' with the unethical 'sale' of news. The key lies in setting disclosure norms. If a politician or a corporate house wishes to 'buy' editorial space or airtime, they can do so, but only if they adhere to rules of disclosure. It is when the political/commercial brand is plugged in a non-transparent manner, when an advertisement masquerades as news with no distinction being clearly made in form or content to the reader or viewer, that the sanctity of news is violated.
Secondly, we need to realize that 'paid news' is not some overnight phenomenon that began with election 'packages'. Film and sports journalism, for example, has been forced to blur the lines with public relations for some time now. Corporate India has also been a step ahead of political India: 'private treaties' by which a newspaper enters into agreements with business groups to ensure favourable coverage in return for an equity stake in the company has been in existence for several years now. A political candidate who pays for favourable media coverage is not guaranteed victory, a corporate house through a 'private treaty' is almost guaranteed lasting immunity against journalistic 'objectivity'.
Thirdly, we must recognize as to just why there is a growing temptation to opt for 'paid news' by all the entities involved. In the case of elections, it is no secret that the election commission's attempt to control excessive expenditure by clamping down on rallies and publicity material has only led to political funding going 'underground': like liquor, paid news is part of this 'parallel' election machinery. With many regional politicians controlling cable networks and newspapers, the local media in particular is easily compromised.
Moreover, the nature of the news 'business' has fundamentally altered in recent years. The news space in television, and to an extent in print too, is increasingly cluttered and the financial pressures have only heightened in a competitive market. While the advertising pie has grown, it is offset by the growing expenditure. Newspaper cover prices or channel distribution revenues are still well below accepted standards. In this difficult external environment, 'paid news' has almost become a survival option for some, especially in regional markets. In the process, the 'Chinese wall' that existed between journalist and advertiser, between news and marketing has almost evaporated.
And yet, to blame the sharp-suited sales and marketing teams for 'legitimising' paid news would be to shirk our responsibility as journalists. The imprint of a newspaper carries the byline of an editor, not the proprietor or the marketing guru. It is the editor who is legally responsible for what is carried in a newspaper or telecast on a channel. A sales and marketing professional is paid to enhance revenues. An editorial professional is paid to improve the quality of content. A journalist is meant to add editorial value to content, not peddle it to the highest bidder. Critical to this value addition are the notions of integrity and credibility, neither of which can be measured through hard cash . Unfortunately, with the declining role of the editor as the watchdog of news and the emergence of fly by night owners, a vacuum has been created that has led to a near-total breakdown of rules and standards.
If editors have been accomplices in the debasement of news, they must now take the lead role in restoring its sanctity. If every editor in this country agreed to follow a strict code of conduct in dealing with 'paid news', if there was an insistence on disclosure norms, there is every possibility that the cancer can be checked. Most right-thinking news organisations will realize that 'paid news' will eventually erode their brand, and it is for editors to put sufficient moral pressure through every available media forum to shame and isolate those who refuse to fall in line. It maybe a slow process, but one whose success is critical to the future of this profession.
Post-script: at the recent editors guild annual meeting, one venerable editor from the old school of journalism was asked what he would do if he was forced to carry 'paid news'. 'Pack my bags and do something else!" was the blunt reply.

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