A new form of corruption, News selling, is emerging in Journalism. It is also being referred to as Paid Content. The Times of India group has set up a division for this purpose called Medianet (http://medianet.indiatimes.com/), complete with a rate card for the sale of news. Many other news papers, TV channels and other news agencies are actively engaged in this unethical practice.
Sale of news is different and distinct from paid advertisements, advertorials or special supplements, all of which are clearly identified as sponsored features while paid news is not. Such spurious news has become attractive for flop movies, fashion and lifestyle products and the promotion of hotels and restaurants that enter into a payment arrangement with the organization.
Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan officially spent a little over Rs11,000 on paid advertising but got coverage worth much more in newspapers such as the Maharashtra Times and Lokmat. More than 89 full page news items were published in the newspapers, mostly in colors, on the Chief Minister appearing during the State poll campaign. The glaring mismatch between Mr. Chavan’s claims and the news coverage was analyzed. Three Marathi newspapers carried identical news reports praising Mr. Chavan. Only the headlines were different. Prima facie, EC felt that it was an advertisement masquerading as news.
Based on data compiled by media monitoring agency AdEx (a unit of TAM Media Research Private Ltd), Mint reported on 2 December that in the recent assembly elections in Maharashtra, advertising volume (in column cm) in Marathi newspapers declined by around one-fifth from 2004, suggesting the possibility of the increased incidence of advertisements disguised as news.
Yellow journalism and blackmailing were known forms of corruption in journalism but today, a subtle and implicit form of corruption is creating greater mischief. The paid news syndrome is aimed at promoting certain interests and suppression of news and concerns of other interests have become a usual feature in media. Media turning into a commercial enterprise and the newspaper into a commodity-the media was being driven by market forces. Such media is indulging in trivialization, sensationalisation and tainted corporate communication, trial by media, incorrect reporting of court cases and devaluation of the office of editor.
Sections of media indulging in paid coverage especially during elections were undermining the democracy. MP or an MLA paying money to a newspaper or a television channel to elicit favorable news coverage is becoming common.
Haryana CM has revealed that he approached the leading newspaper of his state with money for positive stories after learning that the newspaper had signed a package deal with his rivals to print negative stories. The selling of editorial space has become both blatant and institutionalized, and that neither the print nor the electronic media are immune to the malaise.
Media barons responsible for turning newspapers into mammon-worshipping behemoths where everything is available for a price, including sacred editorial space. Fact-finding journalism has now become a commercialized activity. Owners have turned newspapers into a business proposition.
A top management executive from Punjab Kesri (readership 1.04 crore) admits that the newspaper made anywhere between Rs 10 crore and Rs 12 crore during the assembly election season. They were forced to sell editorial space because of tremendous pressure from politicians. We were also being pushed by the so-called national English dailies who had their packages and were mopping up revenue. We could not have missed out on the opportunity.
Television news channels are equally guilty of selling editorial space. Congress MP Sandeep Dikshit was approached by a news channel in Delhi with a package to cover Rahul Gandhi’s visit to the East Delhi constituency during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Campaign managers of the Congress spent money for the Delhi assembly elections last year when a TV channel insisted on projecting a lesser tally for the Congress in its opinion polls. The tally improved after the channel was paid off.
In Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, the 24-hour TV9 channel in Telugu and Kannada has been accused of promoting politicians for a monetary consideration and is alleged to have run an hour-long interview with a prominent politician who paid for the airtime. Channel director Mahendra Mishra denies this, though. Marathi channel IBN-Lokmat too found itself in the middle of a controversy when it ran a feel good interview with one of its directors, Congress candidate Rajendra Darda, during the Maharashtra assembly elections. Editor Nikhil Wagle, however, says he took extra precaution to ensure that Darda got lesser airtime than other politicians.
Media owners squeezed as much money as possible from political parties and candidates during the Lok Sabha elections. There are recorded cases of open blackmailing of candidates.
With the emergence of Paid content issue, the media is not the fourth estate any more. Journalism is no more a sacred profession. Though the advertisement helps news agency to subsidies the news to the readers, the readers willingly pay for the news and editorial content. They have a right to expect that advertisements and news are distinct and segregated. In the absence of such clarity, the reader ought to be outraged at the attempt to pass off paid news as the real thing. In such a situation, the consumer, far from being king, is totally irrelevant. The selling of news becomes unethical.
Editors Guild of India expressed shock on the publication of Paid News. It issued a statement on Wednesday, 23 December 2009 and sent a letter to each of its member-editors throughout the country asking for pledges that his/her ‘publication/TV channel will not carry any paid news' as the practice ‘violates and undermines the principles of free and fair journalism'. It also formed an ethics committee to look into the matter.
The Indian Election Commission recently asked the Press Council of India "to define what constitutes paid political news," so it can adopt appropriate guidelines. During a December meeting, the elections body also directed the press council to "formulate guidelines to the media houses" to require that the money involved be incorporated in the political party and candidate expenditures. The press council, a quasi judicial body, has decided to investigate, establishing a committee to examine violations of the journalistic code of fair and objective reporting.
[Contributed by mksri]
[Contributed by mksri]