just returned from India,
where I spent a week meeting journalists and discussing press freedom
concerns. One issue that emerged during my visit is what is known
euphemistically as “paid news.” Many media outlets routinely sell
political advertising dressed up as a news article.
March 13, the Editors Guild and the Indian Women’s Press Corps sponsored a
lively discussion in New Delhi
featuring an all-star lineup of journalists and officials from leading political
parties, as well as the head of the electoral commission. At first blush,
the issue seems pretty straightforward. Publishing political advertising
disguised as a news article misleads the public and, panelists noted, violates journalistic
ethics. It has an impact on press freedom because it allows politicians to
control the news agenda. But as I learned, the forces that created paid news
are complex, and eliminating the practice will not be easy.
As moderator Rajdeep Sardesai explained, the
practice emerged initially in the entertainment sections when PR agents began
paying newspapers for articles promoting their clients. This may not have been
the pinnacle of journalistic excellence, but it did not directly undermine the
integrity of the newsgathering function. But then politicians wanted in on the
deal. Their basic argument was: If Bollywood stars can pay for favorable news
coverage, why can’t we?
Moreover, the paid news phenomenon institutionalized a practice that was already widespread.
Journalists in India,
particularly at the provincial level, have long accepted cash payments in
exchange for favorable coverage. As Sushma Swaraj, head of the opposition BJP party, told the audience, “First
the journalists asked for tea, then liquor, and now money.”
at the event recognized that this was not a good situation. But now do you
politicians complained about being shaken down, but none were willing to
renounce paid news unilaterally because it would give their rivals the upper
hand. There is no law against paid news, and while several panelists called for
new legislation, others were not excited
about letting the government into the newsroom.
journalists complained that the practice undermined their credibility, media
corporations seem unwilling to renounce it because it generates significant
revenue. Moderator Sardesai, one of India’s most prominent television
reporters, suggested that, at a minimum, media companies establish standards
and identify paid news item.
issue of paid news is not going away any time soon. But what was encouraging
was the intensity and passion of the debate. Journalists—or at least the ones
who came out for the panel discussion on a Saturday morning—care deeply about
the issue. Perhaps with more discussion and dialogue all parties will find
their way towards a solution.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Rajdeep Sardesai's name has been corrected.
Joel Simon is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. He has written widely on media issues, contributing to Slate, Columbia Journalism Review, The New York Review of Books, World Policy Journal, Asahi Shimbun, and The Times of India. He has led numerous international missions to advance press freedom. His book, The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom, was published in November 2014. Follow him on Twitter @Joelcpj. His public GPG encryption key can be found here.
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