by Deanna Harms
We all know the parameters of long-codified, time-honored professional ethics. None of us needs a sermon on ethics. Plus, when it comes down to it, you’re either an ethical person or you’re not. No amount of lecturing will change that.
Still, without going all righteous on you, a bit of a refresher wouldn’t hurt. A colleague recently forwarded a white paper that deals with the issue of “pay for play” or “cash for coverage” in countries around the world. Chilling stuff. The report was commissioned by the Center for International Media Assistance and written by a veteran journalist who’s worked hands on with newspapers in Africa and taught at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia. Check it out: http://cima.ned.org/sites/default/files/CIMA-Bribery_of_Journalists-Report.pdf
Here are a few examples of his findings:
- A Russian PR agency issues a release and 13 publications run stories based on it – but only after demanding payment from $125 to almost $2,000.
- A Cambodian newspaper runs a special edition honoring a local politician then sends bills to advertisers who pay rather appear non supportive – even though they had never agreed to the ads.
- A “Day for the Journalist” in Nicaragua isn’t a time to honor journalists, but to bribe them with everything from food baskets to hard currency.
- Journalists surveyed in Ghana and Zambia view “brown-envelope journalism” (based on the commonly used vehicle for slipping money to a reporter) as customary and part of the culture.
What causes this environment? Low wages for journalists contribute greatly, but perhaps even more important is the high degree of news control governments, businesses and others demand. By managing the message, they effectively muzzle the watchdog function of a free media.
The Value of Credibility
In the States, we don’t have this sort of rampant media bribery, but there are growing pressures for pay to play. And, in a way, who can blame the media? As a business, if you value and want the newspaper, or TV station or radio station to remain in business so it can report your news – shouldn’t you advertise with it? But what happens when an advertiser, unhappy about coverage, calls and wants better placement, a bigger article or unsavory parts excised?
As PR practitioners, we should want reporters and editors to stand strong. To resist these eroding, corroding forces. To maintain irreproachable barriers between news coverage and advertorials. Once media lose readers/listeners/viewers trust, they have nothing to sell. Consumers will simply move on to other sources they view as credible – such as social media. Maintain trust and you should gain customers – and more advertisers.
PRSA Code of Ethics
Like all relationships, when you point the finger of blame, fingers point back at you. Want the media to behave ethically? As people working with journalists, we need to behave equally ethically. You can read PRSA’s full code of ethics at http://www.prsa.org/AboutPRSA/Ethics/CodeEnglish/index.html
Here are some key principles to keep top of mind.
• Protect and advance the free flow of accurate and truthful information.
• Foster informed decision making through open communication.
• Protect confidential and private information.
• Avoid conflicts of interest.
• Reveal sponsors for represented causes and interests.
Remember. Without credibility, we have nothing.