The myth of editorial independence

Editorial independence is nothing short of a pipe dream in the Gulf, leaving consumers shortchanged by inadequate publications that place profit ahead of excellence 

In 2009, Diego Rinallo and Suman Basuroy released the results of a study they had made into whether advertising spend influenced media coverage for any given advertiser. For journalists, the results were depressing.

The findings indicated that advertisers received preferential treatment in coverage; that publishers more dependent on a specific industry for ad revenues were prone to a higher degree of influence; that peer pressure from competing publishers affected coverage decisions; and that “larger and more innovative companies are at an advantage for obtaining coverage for their products”.

The report focused on both the US and Europe, but the  findings apply to the Gulf more than ever before. Newspaper and magazine editors are increasingly under pressure from all quarters as competition increases in a diversified, multi-platform media landscape. Publishers, advertisers and media agencies are all guilty of coercion and bullying, with editors forced not to run stories that may upset advertisers; to publish articles that are of benefit to their owners; or to run articles in exchange for advertising. In the process, the position of editor is being constantly undermined, with journalistic objectivity, fairness and non-partisanship being sacrificed at the altar of commercialism.

Yet, without editorial independence, publications are all but worthless as anything other than a PR vehicle. They are shortchanging their consumers and playing into the hands of bloggers and citizen journalists, who are free of the need to be financially viable.

“Editorial independence is crucial. If people believe that your words or pictures are being dictated or swayed by an owner, advertiser or government, then you lose credibility,” says John Micklethwait, editor of The Economist. “And it matters even more now that people are trying to show that content has commercial value.”

Eric Mirabel, regional executive director of marketing at Omnicom Media Group MENA, adds: “This situation isn’t confined to our region or any type of press. Every day, somewhere around the world, there are attempts by brands to buy their way in or influence an editorial line, some of which hit the headlines in the past. This isn’t limited to companies and many government officials, politicians, lobbyists and community leaders also try their luck in this game. The self-censorship that prevails in the region and tilts editorial coverage towards positive stories is another sign that the independence of the press isn’t what it should be ideally. How much this needs to change depends on one’s perspective.”

As Mirabel points out, what makes this region particularly susceptible to infringements on editorial independence is that the press is far more dependent on advertising revenue than on circulation income. “This puts pressure on publishers to prioritise advertisers’ interests over their readers’. Since there is little evidence that a shift of focus in favour of the editorial line of the publication would dramatically alter the dynamics of their business, the situation continues to the point where the commercialisation of editorial is institutionalised.”

Mirabel adds: “The decision to place an ad in a given publication is based on both quantitative and qualitative ones, including a positive or suitable environment. Admittedly, independent, quality editorial can attract the kind of audience a brand seeks but most would rather avoid unfavourable coverage. The temptation to leverage investments in a publication to create an optimal mix of audience profile and positive editorial environment is very strong, to the point where some see it as a right. The credibility of a publication can be measured by the ability of its team to withhold the pressure, whether it comes from within or outside the organisation.”

In short, “editorial integrity needs to be recognised and valued more by readers before the situation can change. If it leads towards circulation increases, then publishers and brands may be less tempted to challenge it. This will take time”.

Burt Reynolds, account director at MediaCom, agrees: “Editorial opinion and direction are part of the reason why people choose to read a particular publication. If a reader perceives the editorial to have been influenced by advertisers’ preferences or senior management politics, how long will it be before they switch off and turn elsewhere? Consumers in the digital age are savvy and can spot an advert a mile off, even if it’s in the form of an editorial piece. Advertisers mess with editorial independence at their peril, ultimately it will lead to lower circulations all round.”

Whether the situation will improve will depend on an individual’s level of optimism.

“Things can and will probably change,” says Mirabel. “Recent surveys indicate that consumers detect commercial interests and messages better than before. The more they are exposed to advertising, the better they recognise it for what it is. This also comes at a time when they explore further to form their opinion, using multiple sources, including digital ones. Information that flows more freely and independently allows consumers to become more circumspect and not take things to the first degree. They will increasingly value independent and quality editorial more than they do today, thereby pushing publishers to reconsider their priorities.”

 

DON’T ROCK THE BOAT
Bikram Vohra is a former editor of Gulf News, Khaleej Times and the Bahrain Tribune

“Editors used to stand by their team. I have worked on papers where the owner had to seek permission from the editor to visit the editorial floor. It was a convention like the admiral of the fleet not being allowed into the wardroom unless invited.

“Editors today have shifted from being commanders of their motley crew, to volunteer spokespersons for the management. They are more hatchet men and women than leaders of the pack. Courage and conviction are not requirements. As such, the fault begins with us. We have lost our mojo and survival is what counts. Since the editor is absurdly paid more than the next five journalists put together, why would he not sell his soul to the company store?

“Add to this scenario the ‘buying up’ of journalists at a pretty easy price by the rich and the powerful, the shamelessness of their freebie mindset, a massive drop in affection for the work they do and the contempt that our profession has earned from our paymasters who play us like they would a fiddle, then your idealistic concept is history.

“If every editor had maintained the integrity that came with the power and glory and responsibility of dispensing news there would be a defence. That wall was breached when the Murdoch brigade stomped all over the fourth estate and turned it into a bog. Respect for our talent plummeted and it was suddenly all about the bottom line. Now you have pygmy editors whose Faustian surrender is laughable. They are at the mercy of marketing and management and owners see them as lackeys.

“No one wants excellence in editorial. Not even editorial. Certainly not if they have to pay for it. For newspapers and magazines looking good trumps reading good any day. Don’t rock the boat, get your salary is the mantra.

“Yes, there was a time the editors took on the management and even suspended journalists who went and met the bosses without their permission. You just didn’t do that. It was a basic infringement of editorial conduct. Now, that closeness to the owners is seen as a special benediction. Blame the owners as much as you like but we rendered space to Caesar even when Caesar hadn’t asked for it.

“If some remnant of the past does manifest itself and an editor sticks to his guns, it’s pretty much on yer bike mate. After all, what is an editor in a world of ed advisors, ed consultants, assistant eds, associate eds, executive eds, senior eds, admn eds, section eds and other sundry tiddlers. Just another dispensable designation.”

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