Media Transparency a Global Issue, Says IPRA
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Media Transparency a Global Issue, Says IPRA

Payment for editorial coverage and other unethical practices are rife in the print and broadcast media of many countries around the world, especially in Southern and Eastern Europe and Central and South America.

Paul Holmes

Payment for editorial coverage and other unethical practices are rife in the print and broadcast media of many countries around the world, especially in Southern and Eastern Europe and Central and South America, according to a new study published today by the International Public Relations Association. But IPRA says no region of the world seems immune to the problem, which can take on highly sophisticated forms in countries where it is least expected.
 
Public relations professionals in 52 countries responded to IPRA questions about whether editorial matter in their country normally appears as a result of editorial judgment of the journalists involved and not through any influence or payment by a third party. 
 
The survey was prompted by complaints from PR firms in the former Soviet Union about the practice of “zakazukha,” a Russian word meaning the acceptance of bribes by journalists in exchange for editorial. Those complaints were reported in The Holmes Report (March 5, 2001).
 
Nearly two thirds (63 percent) of respondents in Eastern Europe believe that the practice of zakazukha is common in their country.  Elsewhere, in Southern Europe and in the Africa/Middle East region, 40 percent of respondents believe such a policy is rarely or not generally followed. The most transparent media regions were Asia, with 68 percent agreeing that such a policy is always or usually followed, North America with 65 percent, Australia with 60 percent, and Northern and Western Europe with 58.8 percent.
 
According to Alasdair Sutherland, immediate past president of IPRA and co-chairman of the IPRA Campaign for Media Transparency, the most common problems listed by respondents included: editors and journalists asking for inducements to publish news releases or feature items; company news releases appearing in exchange for paid advertising elsewhere in the publication; advertisements disguised as editorial; material appearing through influence or payment by a third party; and publications asking for payment not to publish certain stories.
 
Much advertising in South and Central America appears disguised as editorial material, the IPRA survey shows. Fifty-nine percent of respondents in the region disagreed with the statement  “material which appears (in my country) in print or on air as a result of payment is normally clearly identified as advertising or paid-for promotion and is not disguised as editorial.” 
 
In Eastern Europe 52 percent disagreed with that statement, along with 47 percent in Africa and the Middle East and 40 percent in Australia. North America scored the best with only 27% disagreeing with the statement.
 
The issue of publications accepting free travel, accommodation or products revealed a wide difference of practices. In the USA and Canada, 35 percent of respondents said that publications “mostly” or always” refuse to accept free travel accommodation or products. However in Eastern Europe 65 percent of respondents said that this policy was followed rarely or not at all.
 
“IPRA’s charter on media transparency asks that when a publication accepts products or free travel or accommodation for its staff to test or review a product or service, this should be clearly indicated in any resulting report,” explains ICMT co-chairman Frank Ovaitt of the USA. 
 
Respondents were also asked if publications in their country have a written policy covering the receipt of free samples, gifts and discounted materials from outsiders. Seventy percent of  respondents in the USA and Canada said this was generally or always true. But 73 percent of respondents in Africa and the Middle East, 59 percent in Central and South America, 55 percent in Southern Europe, and 50 percent in Eastern Europe felt such policies did not exist or were not followed at all. 
 
The IPRA Code of Conduct, adopted in Venice in 1961, expressly forbids corruption of the integrity of channels of public communication. Says Jacques Dinan, IPRA president for 2002, “Our members undertake not to represent competing interests, and not to enter into agreements where fees are dependent on the achievement of certain results. This specifically prohibits a public relations firm being paid, dependent on the type or amount of media coverage which appears.”
 
As for speculation that reporters in some countries accept cash to kill stories, Dinan says such rumors have existed for years. In Australia 100 percent of respondents said this would never happen, and most other regions agreed. In the U.S. 97.5 percent said this would never or very rarely happen, and 87.5 percent of western Europeans agreed. But the number dropped to 68 percent in Asia and 66 percent in Africa and the Middle East.
 
Other unethical activiries include:

        A journalist in full time employment with a publication is also employed, either openly or secretly, by a company or a public relations agency. This appears to occur most often in Eastern Europe and in Africa/Middle East, where 27 percent of respondents reported this happens “often” or “all the time.”

        An advertising agency sends out a press release to a publication’s media sales department in order to put pressure on the editor to use material from an advertiser. Here Central and South America scored worst, with 47% of respondents alleging that this happens often or all the time.
 
“This online snapshot is the first, although relatively unsophisticated, step in measuring the transparency of the media worldwide,” says Frank Ovaitt, cochairman of the transparency campaign. “As communications professionals, it is our goal to eliminate practices such as ‘cash for editorial’ which have been prevalent in certain countries.
 
“Media transparency is a world issue. The credibility of any publication can only be based on its independent objectivity.  As long as the practice of illicit paid-for editorial continues in any marketplace, the local public can never have confidence in what they read.”

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