Paid journalism and an excessive focus on commercial and political objectives have underpinned a culture of unethical journalism characterised by corrupt practices of employment, advertising disguised as news, and the ansence of transparecy, according to Untold Stories, a report by the Ethical Journalism Network.
The difference between news and “paid news” is often unclear, according to the report, written by Tarek Atia and Mohamed Abdel-Rahman. As a design element, the black “zig-zag” line in newspapers is meant to (subtly) indicate that the content below it, is advertising, or sponsored material. In reality, readers are encouraged to think they are just another article, or editorial content. They are sometimes crafted in the same font and style of the paper’s regular content.
The blurring of the lines between editorial content and commercial content is a global phenomenon and advertising sales executives offering gray-area editorial opportunities to their clients know that journalists working in newsrooms can be asked to write up content to suit the advertiser’s needs. Journalists who accept this kind of work often get salary bonuses and end up making more money than their colleagues, creating an inequality between editorial pay scales and office resentments that are potentially harmful to healthy newsroom relations.
Media either turn a blind eye to this practice, or in some cases even actively encourage editorial staff to seek out advertising opportunities as a way of enhancing their incomes.
According to veteran editors who have worked for both the public sector and private media, journalists and editorial managers frequently receive money or favors from sources – whether government agencies, businesses, individuals, or any other entities — in order to produce favorable content about them.
“This is basically advertising masking as editorial in the form of investigative reports, news reports, or any other material that may be printed in the paper, online, or broadcast on radio or television,” said a former newspaper editor in chief to the authors.
The Code of Ethics stipulates that journalists’ work be objective, independent, and in the public interest, and not for some special interest. And yet, according to the former editor in chief, the prevalence of such deceptive practices requires urgent and serious investigation to combat this phenomenon, at the individual, institutional, and national level: “No less than the credibility of the media is at stake.”
The value of the cash payments depend on the amount of editorial space on offer and on the status of the media concerned. Public figures who want to protect their image or portray themselves in a certain way often have several writers, editors or journalists on their pay roll at a select number of media outlets. The standard budget, according to experts, for this kind of paid journalism operation is in the tens of thousands of Egyptian pounds per year. On the lower end of the scale — and much more common – is the public figure or special interest body just looking for any kind of favour from a small time hack, the sort who might produce coverage that may only cost the rough equivalent of a dinner invitation.
Source: Tarek Atia and Mohamed Abdel-Rahman (2015) “Egypt: Zig-zag politics and the scorge of paid for journalism” in Aidan White (ed.) Untold Stories. How Corruption and Conflicts of Interests Stalk the Newsroom. Ethical Jornalism Network.