Paid for media

Bigger malice follows paid news syndrome.

The long term effects of ‘paid news’ in the media have been devastating. Though started by a few, the practice spread to others. For the rest, promotional items became more frequent. Though these are not paid news per se, those who featured in them were often regular advertisers. A quid pro quo arrangement exists between most news papers and their advertisers.

Even in olden days, it was not unusual for the editorial side of the newspapers to give some consideration to big advertisers. However, the following comment from a top level manager of a bank, which often partners with a national newspaper in organising mutually beneficial programmes in Kerala, described the situation precisely. “In the past, we used to make it a point that our press releases went to the news bureaus directly. They were never routed through the advertising wings of newspapers because the editorial people were almost sure to dump them just because they came through their advertising department. Now, we make sure that the releases are routed through the advertisement department as that guarantees publication.”

Television channels go a step further. Specific news slots are allotted to news from the advertisers. When asked about a regular slot being given to a stunt by a member of a business family day after day, a producer of a Malayalam channel said: “It is just like jackets in newspapers.” The comparison was incorrect because the channel was masquerading publicity material as news. The situation is worse when it comes to business news. Negative news relating to individual companies is often suppressed. For example, a channel that gave much importance to the share price of two companies going up for a few days in succession, barely mentioned it when the share price hit the lower circuit limits of stock exchange a few weeks later. (Many of the ups and downs in markets are now caused by exaggerated news which helps channels to create viewer interest.) Interestingly, a recent promotional advertisement for a channel turned out to be, in effect, one to justify a brand that was taking a beating at the hand of regulators.  The selected bytes of reporters were ones that presented the side of the troubled company.

To top it all, now entire channels are being paid for by interested parties. The Managing Director of Zee Entertainment Subhash Chandra recently told ET Now that the owner of a channel (on paper) was a chartered accountant who had no means to run a loss making television channel. Another was in jail. Still, there was no dearth of funding for the channels.

As he said, there was need for transparency regarding ownership of channels. This called for legislation. Legislation was also needed to prevent ‘paid news’ as the much touted ‘self regulation by media’ is not working at least in the case of ‘paid news’.

Related article: Paid News Syndrome 2015