Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Church and State

During a recent editorial meeting in the newsroom, a journalist offers up a story idea for vetting which creates a large reaction from the news team. The story is about a large multinational corporation whose product is renown in Ghana for poor quality and general unreliability. The reporter wants to speak to those in charge and ask why these problems are ongoing. Immediately upon hearing the idea the newsroom erupts into a yelling, laughing mass of derision. Both journalists and the news editor call for the reporter to kill the story. The corporation happens to be a sponsor.

At that moment the head of the media house enters the meeting and is informed of the story idea. Expecting him to be upset or even enraged over the gall of the reporter to suggest such a story, the newsroom awaits the tirade. The CEO does not get upset. He believes that this is a good story. Just not as a critical look at a poor quality product. Instead, it is an opportunity to propose to the corporation an exclusive chance to speak on camera about the measures being taken to solve their issues – at a price, of course.

The challenges of media proprietorship in a developing nation are great. Underscored by a general lack of resources, political and cultural minefields to negotiate and technological challenges in accessing an audience, media ownership is not an easy task. An entrepreneur attempting to build a business in this landscape will use all available tools to overcome these challenges. But when the news becomes an extension of this business venture, the integrity of the reporting is compromised and both journalists and the audience suffer.

The line between journalism and public relations is often blurred. Watch or listen to any news broadcast, or pick up any paper, and you are likely to see many made for media events and press conferences filled with quotes or sound bites offered by politicians, business executives and public relations officers. Journalists and media houses are often encouraged to cover these events to fill airtime or column inches, in many cases through direct payment.

When a media house is encouraged to cover an event through a payment, the journalists who goes to report on the event will generally get 10% of the total amount given. If, perhaps, $500 goes to the media outlet, $50 would go to the reporter. This is quite a large sum of money considering the average salary of a journalist is between $100-300 per month.

On its own, this practice is relatively benign. A large company donates equipment to a hospital and wants a bit of publicity. Who does it hurt? When a journalist’s story is disallowed because it paints a sponsor, or potential sponsor in a bad light, or when journalists begin to censor themselves, limiting the scope of stories they tell, the problem becomes clear.

Journalistic quality is measured, by many accounts, in terms of truthfulness, independence, fairness, balance, and objectivity in the process of newsgathering. It must stand as a check and balance to the power of government and business. When the media purport to do these things, but then act as mouthpieces for power brokers as a part of their business model, a great disservice is done to the audience.

The line between news and public relations in the developing world may very well be the delineation between journalistic ethics and financial solvency. Does the news department create the audience that gives the sponsors a platform, or do the sponsors keep the newsroom alive? Does the media house even exist without pay-to-play media coverage?

Presumably the audience of a newscast is interested in the events of the day, both local and from around the world. They are interested in quality journalism that informs, entertains and even inspires. Good news coverage builds the reputation of the entire media house, and helps to grow the potential audience for all other programs.

Without a distinct separation of news and promotion, of church and state, how can the audience expect to believe anything on the broadcast? How can they make informed decisions on what to believe, who to vote for, what product to buy or which channel to watch? When news is so easily bought and paid for by those who should be subject to it, it becomes just another commercial.

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