Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Strip us of our professional integrity, leave us with nothing

Once upon a time I went to journalism school and my lecturers taught me that a journalist’s (or reporter’s – my Aussie bosses convinced me it’s cooler to be seen as a reporter on the ground chasing stories than a high-and-mighty ‘journalist’) job was to report the news OBJECTIVELY.

Which means there is no such thing as an article being influenced by ANYTHING -- especially not an amount of money paid to my publication in the form of an advertisement.

That was no problem for me to learn and accept because I thought nobody in the right mind would expect anything less from a reporter.

Well what do you know? I was wrong – duh.

Today, many local newspapers and magazines (you know who you are) condone some form of ‘paid editorial’ – which basically means if you’re willing to buy an ad, the reporter’s willing to write an article which is favourable to you, regardless of whether that is the truth or not.

In fact, I’ve heard that reporters nowadays come straight out and ask interviewees: “Would you like to buy an ad?”

Which goes against the journalist’s code of ethics. Here’s an example of such a code according to The New York Times.

“72. The Times treats advertisers as fairly and openly as it treats readers and news sources. The relationship between The Times and advertisers rests on the understanding, long observed in all departments, that news and advertising are strictly separate — that those who deal with either one have distinct obligations and interests and neither group will try to influence the other.

73. Members of the news department should maintain their disinterest and objectivity by avoiding discussions of advertising needs, goals and problems except where those needs or problems are directly related to the business of the news department.”

I really hope I won’t have to take more calls ‘encouraging’ me to write something because someone’s considering advertising in my publication. Sometimes, these people even mention that other magazines are offering them a cheaper ad price – like I should care, seriously!

We’re a business and we know how important advertising dollars are. But we also know our readers – you are intelligent, discerning professionals who are in the business of buying and selling and creating advertising so you can smell an ad five miles away.

If one day you read something I wrote and you can sniff the distinctive scent of paid editorial off it, that’s the day you lose trust in my reporting, and that’s the beginning of the end for my publication.

A fellow publisher once admitted to me she accepts ‘support’ from advertisers for her articles on them. Call it whatever you want, lady, but it’s all the same thing.

Some publications which practice editorial integrity include the Financial Times, TIME, Businessweek, The Economist and MIS Asia. I’m sure there are many more but for every one that upholds the code, there are five more that don’t.

The ones that uphold the code.


oldPRhand said...

This kicks a** Perhaps I come from the old school of Media Relations but I get very uncomfortable when I have to "support" editorial! You think your customers don't know you've bought the editorial? Of course they do, cos they probably been pitched by the reporter or ad sales people! Buying editorial is just lazy journalism and ad sales marketing.

inspirethereal said...

way ta go! *grin* you are spot on about integrity and credibility. the key role at the end of the day is to deliver objective reporting. if you want to be 'supported' to write, go join special projects! *lol*


germyong said...

Being very junior in marketing role, I seriously thought that it is a common practice for most magazines because in my industry, I do get such calls at least once per month for such 'lazy journalism and ad sales marketing'. Good thing, I never press hard for it to happen.

I realise, The more I learn, the less I thought I know.

Honest.One said...

Debbie you do have my sympathy, but let’s not place unrealistic expectations in this regard, because unfortunately this underhand practice is set to continue in Singapore.

Especially applicable to periodicals, most players fail to realise that the lowering of professional journalistic standards does actually DEFACE the industry (Demanding Editorial For Advertising is Cheap Extortion).

Unethical publishers and overbearing advertisers seem to proliferate, sadly underestimating the intelligence of the average Singaporean along the way. Seemingly unaware, clients feed off their assertive negotiating power, while publication owners scramble for the dollar and embrace the unprincipled ‘if you’ve got an ad, we’ve got an article’ approach.

It’s not surprising therefore, that many clients and agencies look down on magazines as being marginal media. These publishers then wonder why their readerships are so fragmented and question their medium’s immature reputation.

What astounds most media professionals with a hint of international experience is that both these obstinate bedfellows (publisher and client) remain delusional, in that they seriously believe consumers don’t see through their thinly disguised, ‘soft sell’ collaboration. It’s as if they were publishing for themselves, not the readers.

The fact that magazines in Singapore have one of the lowest revenue percentages (compared with other major media) of any country in the world, doesn’t really excuse the blatant dumping of editorial ethics.

Then again, living in the shadows of Government monopolies (the other major media) probably hasn’t instilled a strong desire for ethical discipline and upright business practices, hence the circulation auditing issue continues to be the criticism of choice.

If editorial integrity was to somehow take hold, it stands to reason that the magazine publishing industry in Singapore could gain significantly more credibility and respect from both readers and advertisers alike. One could even argue that this would attract more constructive marketers, allowing publications to further develop and profit.

But as I mentioned at the outset, let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

RyceBoy said...

No wonder I failed "Journalism Code & Ethics" subject in school!