From Neeta Radia tapes and rampant Political advertisements during elections to senior media editors doing PR work for companies to increase their profits, leaking business related files from key ministries at the center, Indian journalism field has showed its cracks under unethical pressure. The problems plaguing the field includes Paid news, business treaties, lack of willpower of regulatory organizations, Black mailing practices for getting huge advertising contracts and concocted Readership surveys, flouted Television rating reports to manipulate the advertising revenues etc
The Elections (general, state, and now local bodies also), mega Sports events, business meets- both India and abroad (sponsored), leaking the crucial policy papers to industry (oil, power, finance especially) from sensitive ministries colluding with officials there, mingling journalism with PR for business firms can all come under one or another form of paid news. In 2003, Benet Coleman Company Ltd (BCCL), publishers of The Times of India started openly a paid service to send journalists” abroad to cover events for business groups for a fee.
In private business treaties, companies offer its shares to media houses for ad space. P Senath, Rural affairs Editor with The Hindu, published a serious of articles clearly specifying the nexus between media houses and business groups. It included, The Times of India supporting the Genetically Modified seeds. The TOI published articles claiming no farmer suicide was reported from areas where they have used GM, which was later contradicted by government reports itself.
Adding to this shame and misery was the arrest of 2 ZEE News Senior Editors in Delhi on the complaint of Tindal Group (JSPL) based in Haryana. The complaint alleged that editors were demanding advertisements worth 100 crore as quid pro quo for diluting their content on the coal scam. The group chairman and then Member of Parliament Naveen Jindal conducted a reverse sting and made things ugly for the media fraternity. The case is still pending.
Paid news has been defined as ―Any news items or articles that appeared in a media for a price or any sort of considerations. (Print, electronic, news portals). The Press Council of India (PCI) called paid news extremely dangerous for the survival of Indian democracy, Economic Times reported. The PCI has found through its investigation that several of big Indian media houses has actively involved in this menace. The then Press Council chairman Justice G.N. Ray is quoted as saying, at a journalism seminar titled, save ethics, save media, organized by the Tripura Journalists Union. Media cannot function just for the gain of capital accumulation or ownership monopoly rights Deccan Chronicle reported that, Ray expressed concern about the metamorphosis of media in to an industry The Telegraph reported that, The Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar in the same seminar quite ironically complimented India’s media’s efforts in exposing various scams. Sarkar further stated: that “it is a harsh reality that media monopolies are colluding with the industry and political parties, for generating income.
The Press Council of India was established in 1966 as a semi judicial body which keep a watch on the press Prominent journalist Sekhar Datta described the seminar as a timely one to the series of stories that have cast a shadow over the working of even the best of media in India and expressed the hope that the fourth estate would introspect and self-criticize. Media-is no more a platform for the people to express their voices, but has become an engine of growth in spite of major scams and scandals because of the opportunities thrown out by LPG(liberalization, privatization and globalization),” Datta stated. But the Indian media has been usurping the headlines because of the negative stories related to various scams of late.
Where journalists are concerned, a mild level of impropriety would be considered as severely damaging. The Ethical Rulebook of Journalism clearly says “When we sell our self for a price, we should know that we are selling our credibility and morphing our self as an industry .The media’s reputation lies in the character surfacing through its fair behavior as is evident from the working style of its full time and part time employees., both editorial and non editorial staff members. It is also applicable to freelancers as well.
In case of conflict of interest, the subordinate staff should take up the issue with their supervisors and develop it in to a topic for future discussion both internally and externally with regard to that organization. It is also better to keep the minutes of such discussions for future reference, in case a conflict of interest has suddenly comes up. This can also be maintained as a part of the official dossier of that media house and personal file of that particular employee. When a media person is in doubt, he/she should consult their supervisors and if he is not available, act upon your common sense.
The well acclaimed New York Times Ethical Handbook which is considered by many across the globe and media spectrum, clearly list out the parameters for the media staff to move around and space available for them to work in . It says journalists can collect information for its readers but Staff members may stay away from misusing it. Don’t provide wrong information that will violate our commitment to the readers and their fundamental rights as well.
Using coercive means to non-cooperative sources is strictly unethical. Providing positive coverage and favorable questions in interviews are also unethical. Maintaining the relationship with the news source should be with a professional touch and stay away at a safe distance. Discipline, Judgment and Commonsense will prevail here. It is very difficult to lay down strict rules in this aspect because of the sensitivity involved in it. Meeting the news source over a drink or meal is okay but always keeps in mind the difference between business and your profession. Too much of personal involvement is also a strict no to a good journalist. The staff members should disclose all details of their meeting with the news sources and delicacies involved, with Senior Editors, Associate Editors, Managing Editors and people in the management and better stay away from the freebies offered by a “news maker” unless your media house pays for its staff members. Editorial staff may not accept free or concessional stay facilities and free passes for favorable coverage of events especially the much watched about items like Sports, Product launch, or celebrity events like IPL, Film Award Nights, Launch of Cars on foreign and Indian venues.. No accept rule of discounts, reimbursements and other teasers are applicable not only for staff members but to the top management staff during their interaction with business events.
Following the 2009 General elections journalists‘groups and NGOs came up with eye opening studies that barely exposed how media organizations received huge chunks of money from politicians as quid pro quo for twisted and favorable election coverage, which was later infamously known as the paid news phenomenon or syndrome. In 2010, a sub-committee constituted by the Press Council of India (PCI), comprising Senior Journalists Paranjoy Guha Thakruta and K. Sreenivas Reddy, prepared a draft report titled” ‘Paid news‘: How corruption in the Indian media undermines democracy.” The report was at first dumped out by the PCI with its powerful member group of publishers‘, lobby for a lighter version. Unfortunately for them, the report was thereafter leaked online, Parliamentary body on media corruption—details how sections of the Indian media sold itself for huge sums of money without any second thought in the name of business debt and making it profitable to save media entity from falling into foreign hands. According to this report, there were at least 126 confirmed cases of paid news, including 61 candidates openly admitting to buying media space for favorable coverage in the 2012 Gujarat elections alone.
T.N. Ninan, chairman and chief editor of Business Standard Ltd, said: “We have never reached such a high level of readership and low level of credibility. We have never seen such a proliferation of broadcast media, but at the same time consolidation is going on among top 4 or 5 players at a feverish pitch .We have raised the quality of content to a never before level but at the same time the our ethical level has plummeted to new lows.. The public for the first time has been maintaining a safe distance from media organizations as a caution. But many consider this as both the best and worst times for the media in the country.”
P. Sainath, Rural affairs editor at The Hindu, in his submission to the Standing Committee on ministry of Information and Technology., said it is a play ground being shared by various stage and non stage actors like the media, industries and. the politicians of various classes and there is not even a single major state in the country without such instances reported. India, ranked very high in Transparency International‘s Corruption Perceptions Index, so it would be quite natural to see that the corruption in society and politics is spilling over into the media
N. Ram, former managing director and editor-in-chief, The Hindu clearly numbers the instances that led to the erosion of quality level in journalism level. monopolization of management in some crucial sectors; manipulation of news at all levels, concocting news analysis and comments to suit the owners‘ business and political interests; the loss of editorial freedom and its high end devaluation for business gains, systematic dumping down of important and socially relevant news items to suit tweaked market research; the increasing willingness within media to twist news to provide mileage for advertising and marketing goals set by owners and top management personnel; unprecedented levels of – commercialization; price wars launched on the home bases of other media groups to kill competition, increasing media monopoly; private business treaties that undermine the independence of news; bizarre practices like paid news which is almost equal to bribe- taking for favorable coverage.
Each of the factors needs to be addressed specifically in order to rid journalism of corruption and ensure media freedom. Increasing commercialization in the Indian media especially in the last decade has only given the business side, an upper-hand and control over the editorial side too. Added to this are ownership problems — sometimes clandestine and sometimes obvious. Cross- ownership of media has come in for a lot of criticism of late, for fostering media monopolies. I have faith in the new world of digital and online media. Eventually you have to accept that if you want quality, you have to pay, Says Manu Joseph,
The Paid news phenomenon is a result not only of the convergence and collusion of the editorial, advertising, public relations, lobbying groups and the industry, but also due to the declining independence of the journalists/reporters and the reduced role of the editors in media organizations, the Parliamentary Standing Committee reiterating the PCI‘s view .One of the major concerns raised by the PCI and the Parliamentary Standing Committee in their reports has been the pathetic working condition of journalists including the nature of the temporary appointment of reporters and editors. The disparity in salaries is striking, too. The Standing Committee report said the salaries in the urban areas are somewhat okay, but in the rural areas are meager and taking a heavy toll on the status of this profession. With reporters, as an army of stringers with organizational identity cards to make their living by doubling up as advertising sales agents. Waging a war on the wage board recommendations, media houses have taken the matter up with the Supreme Court arguing that this type of a salary hikes was unrealistically high and aimed at controlling the media (read media freedom!)
A. S Panneerselvan, Author of Indian chapter of the EJN report and currently Readers Editor with the “The Hindu says”, “it all started with the liberalization of the Indian economy way back in 1991. Journalists may be for the first time started writing partially true stories about the health of companies who are about to list in various stock exchanges. Even though a substantial number of scribes upholds, core values and cardinal principles of journalism, that minority is more than enough to defame this noble profession and to undermine the public trust which is very much to be there to uphold its credibility. It will definitely weakens the Indian democracy as well”.
Nothing will be possible without the will of the media companies themselves. As long as they do not prioritize, the upholding of the ethics of journalism, external regulation will not be effective. The good news is that the strongest voices against paid news and media malpractices are coming from within the different sections of the media The challenge to protect journalism is bigger than that of protecting the interests of newspapers and media outlets. By resorting to paid news and forging private business treaties, the Indian media industry has found an easy way out by protecting the interest of businesses, and not journalism. Politics, Business and Media form a deadly cocktail, which is, for sure, not at all good for Indian information taste buds.