Corruption in the media

İBRAHIM ALTAY
Published 27.08.2017 22:43
Updated 27.08.2017 22:50
Illustration by Jamilia
Illustration by Jamilia

Under-the-table transactions between journalists and PR agencies will no longer be the exception to the rule and instead become the norm if we do not put a stop to such corruption by taking a unified stance against unethical, illegal practices that threaten to destroy the integrity of our profession

Being a journalist allows a person to witness a wide range of situations as the daily news flows across through our desks while some find their way into print. It also allows us to experience the behind-the-scenes action as we experience the day-to-day events of news-making and other aspects of the job. After a considerable number of years working as a journalist, there are not many things that could come out of left field. At least, so I thought.

As some of our readers might know, in addition to working as the ombudsman for Daily Sabah, I am also the ombudsman of the Turkish Sabah daily. The event in question originated from my work in that capacity. While I consider it to be beneficial to mention the issue here because it is a specifically local problem, this also happens more than we care to admit globally, when it comes to newspapers. Without further ado, let us get to the said situation.

It started with a phone call directed to one of the managers of an important news desk of Sabah daily. The caller began by introducing himself and said:

"Sir, we are from. ...agency and work with … company."

After our colleague questioned the nature of the call, the caller started his pitch:

"There is a project we are working on. We want to introduce it publicly and we need news articles on the project to be published. We prepared a budget for this purpose."

At this point, our colleague was under the assumption that this was a legitimate inquiry. He thought the caller had called regarding an advertisement budget and told him that he could direct the caller to the advertising department as this was not in his purview. However, the caller persisted, saying: "No, no. We would like to share this budget with you."

A generous sum for what? The request was regarding the publication of news articles that would promote their project – not to be confused with advertorials however, which offer money for advertisements disguised as legitimate news articles on the pages of our colleague's news desk.

It takes a dangerous combination of immorality and bluntness to offer this sort of an under-the-table deal.

Our colleague rejected the offer before ending the call, telling the caller that this sort of immoral proposition is not only unethical but also a crime. Then, he came to me to talk about the situation.

For two weeks, I waited with trepidation to learn whether this problem would arise from a different source. I scanned newspapers with concern during these weeks.

After all, if there were a sum of money involved, the proposition would effectively find a willing participant. Where one of our colleagues rejected the offer, another could prove weak to the temptation.

The final news article could even be signed by an unknown party, at the instruction of their managers. Thankfully, what I feared did not come to pass and I was finally able to take a relaxed breath. The "news article" of that agency never found its way to the pages of Sabah daily. I do not want to speculate about other newspapers in the same regard. It would not do to bring others under undue suspicion.

Nevertheless, as I continued my investigation, I encountered more instances of this type of proposition. It appears that they can no longer be dismissed as an exception if we do not wish them to be the rule. After speaking with several of my colleagues, they informed me that they received similar offers from a number of different sources. These agencies and companies approach journalists, seeking to put them on a payroll under the guise of "copyrights," "publicity" and "promotional budgets."

Of course, money is not the only tool they employ to convince journalist to adopt their way of thinking. Sometimes it comes in the form of expensive gifts or family holidays, rental cars or referrals. These moves are always done under the table, of course. Unfortunately, the nature of these actions makes it more difficult to trace their sources and identify the participating journalist.

However, it is not impossible to do so.

No matter how they are presented as a way to convince journalists, the end result of these propositions is corruption, deceit and ill-gotten gains. No amount of rebranding will change that. I am aware that many public relations agencies and employees are disturbed with the situation. After all, it causes unfair competition against those who choose to act honorably and the same goes for journalists too, of course. Not only does this cast a shadow of doubt on journalists who resist corruption but it also causes journalism as a profession to lose credibility.

Therefore, all of us have to work together to do what we can when it comes to eradicating this corruption. This is our responsibility.

We can start by taking the following steps:

If any of us receive unethical proposals, we should report them to the supervisory departments of our newspapers. Let inspectors trace all news articles about the corrupt company or agency along with their writers. Let them find out if there are any mutual beneficial relations between two parties or conflict of interests.

After all, these proposals can just as easily be about tearing down a rival company as they can be about promoting a single entity.

The agencies and companies that participate in and encourage corruption should be exposed. If any of our readers have evidence in this regard, our Reader's Corner is open to you. We can be your voice.

If a journalist is found to be corrupt in this regard, their contract of employment should be terminated. Media organizations should take a unified stance against this, by denying these types of journalists employment.

A black list should be prepared for PR companies and employees without scruples in this regard. For those on the blacklist, a boycott against any news related to them can be very effective if media companies choose to work with one another.

It is always better late than never. After all, we have to start somewhere and if we do not stamp out this corruption now, it will become the norm in the future.

Two wrongs do not make a right

On Aug. 17 a terror attack in Barcelona claimed the lives of 14 people and left more than 100 others injured. As the news broke in Turkey, however, it appeared that every guideline and principle of news coverage, when it comes to terror attacks, went out the window.

Amid the flashing red of breaking news banners, the social media accounts of major media organizations began publishing the first photos of the aftermath. Videos showing innocent people fleeing the carnage and injured victims caught in the throes of death, screaming as blood covered the ground. In other words, it was terror as the terrorists intended.

I have lost count of how many times this subject has been brought up in the Reader's Corner, and the same thing goes for Sabah daily's ombudsman corner, as well. We can collectively say that publishing the photos and videos of the victims of terror attacks only serves the purpose of terror since it further spreads fear and horror.

However, when the attack is not within the borders of our country, many media organizations apparently perceived this as a free pass. Although we often criticize and condemn Western media outlets' approach to terror attacks in Turkey, this does not give us free rein to reciprocate such actions in the same manner.

Two wrongs do not make a right. Terrorism is a crime against humanity and the people of Barcelona deserve the same consideration as the people of Istanbul.

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