The flutter over paid news and so-called private treaties has raised several important questions, ignored several others, and, as all controversies do, muddied the waters to an extent. Newspapers have no business passing off paid-for content as news. One reason for this lies in the foundations of newspaper journalism—the earliest newspapers were launched more from social motives than commercial ones. Another is the way people react to newspapers: They tend to believe papers more than they do television channels. Television is also a medium that came into being from commercial considerations. This doesn’t mean transgressions by television news channels can be excused —just that they can be understood.
Some writers and analysts have also pointed to private treaties, an arrangement where companies sell some of their equity to media firms in return for advertising space. There is nothing wrong with such transactions as long as the media firm doesn’t promise positive coverage that could also increase the value of its own holding in the company. Many media firms do not have the checks and balances to ensure this doesn’t happen, but their absence shouldn’t make private treaties a four-letter word. To offer a cricketing analogy, it’s a bit like badmouthing the doosra, an off-spinner’s ball that turns the wrong way, because some people who bowl it bend their arm (essentially throwing the ball).
Paid content is in the news because of a story by The Hindu on how Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan benefited from this during the recent assembly elections, but the larger issue is media ethics and not election funding. And it isn’t just about a media company taking money from a company or politician in return for a positive write-up. It is also about editors and reporters doing so. Unfortunately, not too many media companies have systems in place to monitor journalists. Paid content is a menace when it is not identified as paid content, but tackling it requires not just corporate-level interventions, but also those at the level of individual journalists. Honest papers aren’t just built by codes of conduct; they are built by honest reporters and editors.
(Editor’s note: Mint has a code of conduct for journalists; all advertiser-generated content carried in the paper is clearly labelled as such; and HT Media Ltd, which publishes Mint, has a private treaties division.)
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