Every year on May 3, World Press Freedom Day serves to remind people of the perils faced by journalists around the world. That message, though, probably falls flat among those who have lost faith in journalism as a force for good. In recent years, authoritarian populist politicians have cultivated this cynicism, attacking the credibility of the press to make their own tenuous relationship with truth appear no worse.
The media haven’t helped their own case. In Asia, conflicts of interest are endemic, between the profession’s democratic mission and its paymasters’ commercial goals. There are media that underplay bad news about their big advertisers. Others skew their news coverage to align with their owners’ non-media investments or their political ambitions.
And even more respectable media outlets are courting advertisers with native advertising, content marketing, sponsored features, and quid pro quo editorial coverage – euphemisms for deals that take journalism’s carefully nurtured relationship of trust with its audience and pimp it out to paying customers. The short-term financial benefits of compromising professional ethics in these and other ways are hard to resist at a time when journalism’s business model is under severe strain.
But it’s vital that we don’t let media that’s middling, mediocre and misguided blind us to the continued existence of more principled journalism. There are still news organisations working hard to protect the professional ethos of journalism as an enterprise dedicated to the public interest, independent from the political and economic forces that it covers.
We need to highlight their existence if journalism is to win public support and attract a new generation of principled practitioners. That’s why, supported by a grant from the Hong Kong University Grants Committee, I’ve been travelling around Asia to study some of the region’s exemplary news organisations. The media outlets in my study – a dozen so far – wouldn’t qualify for sainthood, but they are recognised as standard bearers for professional values.
For one of them, Taiwan’s The Reporter, the solution to the problem of conflict of interest is to reject the commercial model entirely. Like India’s The Wire and Hong Kong’s Citizen News, the start-up has gone the non-profit, donor-funded route. Large donations are vetted by independent trustees to ensure that the website is not captured by powerful interests.
But until Asia is blessed with philanthropists like Joan Kroc, who bequeathed more than US$200 million to America’s non-profit NPR, the likes of The Reporter will remain fringe players. Large commercial news organisations will dominate, so we need owners who are committed to editorial independence, even if it means losing revenue opportunities.
News of this breed’s extinction is exaggerated. Also in Taiwan is Business Weekly, a profitable Chinese language magazine deeply committed to editorial independence. To avoid any perception of conflict of interest, it will not accept advertising from companies it writes about. It even turned down a lucrative 52-week contract from the 2010 Shanghai Expo, on the grounds that it would want to write about it at some point.
Where the public sector is a major advertiser, press freedom requires owners willing to stomach not just legal but also economic attack. An Indian media house that knows the feeling is Kolkata’s Anandabazar Patrika – one of the world’s largest newspapers. Along with its English-language sister paper The Telegraph, it has been denied any state advertising income by West Bengal’s petulant chief minister Mamatma Banerjee – punishment for opposing her in the last election. In Pakistan, the venerable Dawn newspaper has had to give up on any advertising revenue from the military’s vast business network, as the price of its independent journalism.
Where owners back journalism in the public interest, professionalism flowers in ways that buck the trend of media selling out for a quick buck. Editors I spoke with admit they’ve become more cooperative towards their marketing departments’ efforts to accommodate advertisers. But most have set clear policies that put the interests of their audiences first. These include ghettoising sponsored content to specific sections, and using a separate team to produce it. At the Philippines’ Rappler, for example, the marketing department isn’t allowed to use editorial staff to produce its content, as this would distract them from their true roles, their editors believe.
When owners set the tone, even the marketing people understand why editorial independence is non-negotiable. At Malaysiakini, for example, the head of marketing explained to me that she did not want the editorial department to bend, as that would hurt their subscriber base; it was up to her business team to find creative ways to pull in more advertisers without touching the brand’s reputation for independent journalism.
Of course, at any organisation, policies are one thing, day to day practices are another. Workplaces are, even in the most open democracies, among the least transparent decision-making settings. That’s often where professional principles and institutional norms are quietly sacrificed at the altar of expediency. And that’s why I’ve been particularly struck by the things news organisations have done to open up their processes.
These include policies to let audiences have their say, and I don’t mean by reducing them to metrics. At Anandabazar Patrika, it involves holding regular town hall meetings with readers in different parts of the state. The Hindu has a reader’s editor – a media accountability mechanism that both The Washington Post and The New York Times abandoned in recent years to cut costs.
As for democracy within the newsroom, Indonesia’s Tempo magazine has maintained its extraordinary tradition of banning the senior-most editors from chairing the daily editorial meeting. The responsibility is instead rotated among 30-plus junior editors. Tempo’s founders believed that if editorial decisions are made professionally, rank shouldn’t come into the picture. And since it’s the top editors who are most likely to receive secret calls from powerful individuals trying to influence coverage, this radical flattening of newsroom hierarchies reduces the risk of self-censorship.
Many Asian news corporations claim that they’ve had no choice but to cut back journalistic capacity and compromise professional standards. In many cases, though, their actions are dictated not by the survival imperative but by the greed of their shareholders.
The organisations I’ve been studying show that it’s possible to hold the line. They understand the value of branding, and they brand themselves by their values. They challenge the cynical perception of the press as so bereft of standards that its future is of no concern. They show there are still media trying to do right by the public. Their freedom remains a cause that merits public support.
Cherian George is professor of media studies at Hong Kong Baptist University