Media for sale?

Corruption is rife amongst journalists worldwide, claims new research, and the Middle East comes in for its fair share of criticism.

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By  David Cass Published  September 2, 2002

|~||~||~|There has been some disturbing news about journalistic integrity over the past few weeks. It came in the shape of new research from the International Public Relations Association, which claims to reveal widespread corruption among journalists around the world. “Cash for Editorial” is apparently the most prevalent of the unethical practices which remain rife in the print and broadcast media of many countries around the world, according to the IPRA.

Its finding have not, however, gone down well with journalists and advertising executives in the Gulf region. One described its findings as “crazy”, while journalists claimed that it was simply not practical to ignore facilities offered by PR agencies.

The online survey was part of the IPRA’s recently launched Campaign for Media Transparency. Two hundred and forty two public relations and communications professionals, mostly senior staff working in local or international consulting firms, took part and were asked whether editorial matter from a variety of publications in their country was independent or appeared as a result of payment or influence by a third party.

According to Alasdair Sutherland, immediate past president of IPRA and co-chairman of the Campaign for Media Transparency, the most common problems listed by respondents included: editors and journalists asking for inducements to publish news releases or feature items, company news releases appearing in exchange for paid advertising elsewhere in the publication, advertisements disguised as editorial, material appearing through influence or payment by a third party, and publications asking for payment not to publish certain stories.

No region of the world is immune to the problems. Nearly two thirds of respondents in Eastern Europe said bribes for editorial were common in their countries, while in Southern Europe and the Middle East only 40 per cent believed their media to be free from such corruption.

While joining in condemnation of journalists and editors who demand cash or favours in return for publishing material, media professionals in the Gulf region say that it is simply not practical to operate totally in isolation from the public relations community.

It is, after all, a major part of the PR professional’s job to get his or her product into the news pages of magazines and newspapers, just as it is the job of news journalists to both entertain and inform their readers.
According to George Middleton, publisher of “Bahrain This Month” readers are sophisticated enough these days to understand that travel and entertainment features, in particular, are generated by visits paid for by public relations firms and that there should be no reason to declare that fact. “However, if journalists are taking money for publishing articles it’s an entirely different issue,” he said. “It’s fraud and to be condemned.”

Amira Husseini, news editor of the Gulf Daily News, says her reporters work entirely separately from the paper’s advertising department, so minimising any chance of influence from advertisers. “It does happen, though,” she said.

“We do occasionally hear from advertisers who feel we should be covering their event simply because they are advertisers. I always tell them we will only cover according to news values. In the case of advertising features it’s a different matter because the whole article is paid for and the page heading makes it absolutely clear that it is advertising rather than editorial.”

In Dubai, Madhu Subhana Rao, News Editor of the Khaleej Times, says that, in ten years as news editor/acting editor in KT, he has never come across any case of a journalist being offered a bribe blatantly.
He confirms that the paper does receive a lot of invitations from airlines or advertising/PR companies acting on their behalf. They are sent to the editor with a request to nominate a person.

If they are business oriented, a reporter/sub in the business section will be sent and these trips are given to the staff in rotation so that everybody gets an opportunity to visit a new place. He says, “After returning, the staff member is expected to write about the place he/she visited or the company or the inaugural flight, which, I think, is fair. We do also mention in the article which airline or company has sponsored the trip.”

One practice which is peculiar to the region when compared with Europe and the US, is that almost every PR company gives lunch or a gift to every journalist attending a press conference. These can range from a trinket to something quite expensive. Examples I have been quoted are leather-bound desk sets, watches and cameras.

Mr Rao agrees that the staff, particularly reporters and photographers, do get some gifts but there is no obligation on their part to push their material into the paper, though it may be the intention of the sender. There are always checks and balances and we go by merit. He also agreed, “Sometimes some get cash rewards, but they are after the event is over. I don’t think our staff will go the extra mile in anticipation of receiving remuneration from somebody.

“As far as advertorials are concerned, the line between information and ad is very thin. For example, a new product carried in a column can be interpreted as an ad. But whatever advertorial we publish carries and ‘advertisement’ label either on top or bottom. I think journalistic ethics demand it.”
Les Kentwell, from Gulf Saatchi and Saatchi, sees the issue from the dual perspective of experience in both advertising and PR. He says the findings are “crazy.” “I’d expect that, if the government of Bahrain wanted to promote its tourism, they should pay to bring the journalists here. It’s well within the realms of decency to pay for such exposure.”

But what about expecting a favourable press as a result of picking up the tab? “There should be no complaints if negatives come out of such a trip. They should not expect the copy to be benign just because they paid for it. If journalists find negatives they should write about them. I’d consider that to be doing the country or company a service, giving them information that can be used to improve the product or service.”

Within my own experience I know of journalists in the Middle East who also work in the PR industry, either as writers or executives. These, however, are a small minority.

Asia was the ‘cleanest’ region of the world with 68% believing that reports were published as a result of editorial judgment rather than the payment of a bribe. North America, Northwest Europe and Australia, came out of the survey with well, with 60% or more of the respondents saying they believed that payment for editorial was not common in their regions.

However, each region appears to have its own specialist brand of corruption. The survey revealed that in southern Europe PR professionals believe that press releases are often published in exchange for a personal payment to a journalist or editor.

In South and Central America, 41% of PR people said it was common for editors to be paid to keep negative stories out of the press. More than half of African and Middle East respondents said it was common for advertisements to masquerade as editorial, without any indication to readers.

Even in Australia respondents claimed they knew of staff journalists who were also employed by PR agencies. In northern Europe corruption usually appears to take the form of dubious journalist hospitality, particularly on the large newspapers. This region also had the highest percentage of reports that articles were published without acknowledging the travel or other benefits received by the journalist.
The “IPRA’s charter on media transparency asks that when a publication accepts products or free travel or accommodation for its staff to test or review a product or service, this should be clearly indicated in any resulting report” explains the campaign co-chairman Alasdair Sutherland.

Respondents were also asked if publications in their country, “have a written policy covering the receipt of free samples, gifts and discounted materials from outsiders.” Nearly all (92%) respondents in the USA and Canada said this was generally or always true.

However, in Africa and the Middle East 73%, in Central and South America 59%, in Eastern Europe 50% and in Southern Europe 55% of respondents felt such policies did not exist or were not followed at all. In North West Europe 5% said this statement was not at all true and 81% said it is “generally” or “always” true.

Jacques Dinan, IPRA president for 2002 and a member of the campaign committee, explains that members of IPRA subscribe to the Association’s Code of Conduct, adopted in Venice in 1961, which expressly forbids corruption of the integrity of channels of public communication.

“Our members undertake not to represent competing interests, and not to enter into agreements where fees are dependent on the achievement of certain results. This specifically prohibits a public relations firm being paid, dependent on the type or amount of media coverage which appears.” he says.

“This online snapshot is the first, although relatively unsophisticated, step in measuring the transparency of the media worldwide,” Sutherland explains. “As communications professionals, it is our goal to eliminate practices such as ‘cash for editorial’, which have been prevalent in certain countries.”

“Media transparency is a world issue” says campaign co-chairman Frank Ovaitt of the USA. “The credibility of any publication can only be based on its independent objectivity. As long as the practice of illicit paid-for editorial continues in any marketplace, the local public can never have confidence in what they read.” Publications that did not establish and maintain the trust of their readers must eventually be rejected as paid-for propaganda, said the report.||**||

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