Today’s Indian Express front-paged a story headlined “Chhattisgarh govt pays for all the news that is fit to buy” and straplined it: “Govt’s public relations dept, major channels justify coverage deals, deny it is paid news”.
The article shares details of a sales proposal presented by Sahara Samay which promises two-minute news capsules aired 15 times a day, live telecast of the CM’s public meetings, the use of the ticker to create awareness of government schemes, half-hour capsules on government schemes and so on.
The Sahara case is but an illustration; other channels like ETV, Z24 and 224 are also mentioned.
Neither the channels nor the PR department of the government of Chhattisgarh believe that deals like the arrangement described in the Sahara Samay illustration above is paid news.
“The term paid news is coined by national media without understanding (the) concerns of regional media. We have to evolve new forms of revenue as it is a challenge to sustain TV journalism,” the Express article quotes Z24’s editor, Abhay Kishore, as saying. Z24 is a Zee franchisee.
This is almost Clintonesque. “When I was in England, I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t inhale and never tried it again,” Clinton had said. Perhaps it’s closer to the other Clinton gem: “It depends on what the meaning of the words ‘is’ is.”
Perhaps Abhay Kishore is right – ‘paid news’ needs definition, because there are so many kinds of paid news, each different from the other.
1. Paid news in print (a): Content presented in an editorial style with a small disclaimer which says ‘Advt.’, ‘Advertisement’, ‘promotional feature’, ‘marketing feature’ and so on.
2. Paid news in print (b): Content presented in an editorial style without any flagging or disclaimer.
3. Paid news in radio: Where the radio jockey ‘mentions’ brands, people, etc.
4. Paid news in TV (a): Where the content is presented in an editorial style with a disclaimer which says ‘Sponsored feature’ or ‘Sponsored programme’ and so on.
5. Paid news in TV (b): Where the content is presented in an editorial style without any disclaimer.
There are other forms of paid news which cannot be bracketed into any of the definitions above. For example, there need not be a direct quid pro quo between advertising revenues and news – but there could still be instances of paid news. For example, a large advertiser ‘requests’ coverage of an event by speaking to the marketing executive in a media house and the marketing executive ‘requests’ his editorial colleague for positive coverage. This practice is both common and rampant.
Of equal importance is the tacit understanding that a media house will not air/print negative stories of a large advertiser. This practice, too, is both common and rampant.
All the above illustrations could be defined as ‘paid’ news, even if the documentation does not spell out, as is the case with the examples in The Indian Express story, direct ‘deliverables’ by the media houses.
One of the main reasons for media houses embracing paid news is a very simple factor: there is not enough advertising revenue or subscription/circulation revenue available to make media products viable on ad sales revenues alone. Either take the paid news route or shut shop.
The Indian Express story highlights but one example: the government of Chhattisgarh. There are many other state governments, even departments of the central government, which are guilty of the same ‘crime’. There are corporate houses, brands, celebrities, personalities who are happy to sign similar deals. There is hardly a media product which can state, unequivocally, that they are 100 percent clean as far as paid news goes.
The complexity of the various kinds of paid news is such that it is near impossible to police. In many cases, it is near impossible to identify. The only hope is the adherence to the Press Council’s lofty ideals:
“The Council may, in furtherance of its objects, perform the following functions, namely:
(a) to help newspapers and news agencies to maintain their independence;
(b) to build up a code of conduct for newspapers, news agencies and journalists in accordance with high professional standards
That’s the only answer, except in instances where there is no doubt that a transgression is paid news.
And that’s no answer at all. As Justice Markandey Katju, Chairman of the Press Council, said, “Self-regulation is no regulation and news organisations are private bodies whose activities have a large influence on the public and they also must be answerable to the public.”