The years of 2016 and 2017 have taught us, if nothing else, that the news we write, as much as the news we withhold, can distort the way readers perceive reality, with long-lasting consequences. But who decides what truth should be told?
An openDemocracy’s exposé in 2015 revealed that a national newspaper had suppressed negative coverage of a major advertiser to protect ad revenues, and that it had given favourable editorial coverage to other major advertisers.
"From our research so far, it is clear that this is not an isolated incident", said Mary Fitzgerald, openDemocracy editor-in-chief. "However, without proof of a systemic problem and presentation of effective solutions, the news cycle moves on and the media returns to business as usual."
The NGO media organisation’s openMedia project took on the challenge to investigate what forces are at work behind national news, by interviewing journalists across Europe and Eurasia.
It also zeroed in on two economies and media environments as different as the UK and Romania.
In Britain, openMedia revealed how London’s Evening Standard, the city’s flagship free newspaper, read by millions of commuters every week, struck a lucrative deal that helped to varnish the reputation of one of the world’s largest agribusiness companies – with readers unaware that the firm was paying for positive coverage.
It's a "legitimate con", one former executive at ESI Media, the Russian-owned company that controls London’s Evening Standard and the online Independent, told openDemocracy as the project investigated who pays for the publication’s coverage.
Other marketing specialists interviewed by openDemocracy called the practice “creative deception” or “black ops advertising”, claiming that traditional advertising is dead in the water. “I think the public would resent knowing they are being tricked. So best not to always tell them”, one media marketing professional told openDemocracy reporters.
Money can also secure silence, particularly when it’s about a controversial mining project, threatening to erase four mountains in gold-rich Transylvania, as a scrutiny of Romania’s mass media shows. One by one, critical press titles have softened their tones, as a young mining company was buying rounds of marketing feasts that featured their logo on the media’s websites and pages at the height of a national scandal that lasted for years.
Journalists blow the whistle
The growing debate around fake news and financial interference in news production has led openDemocracy to draw up a survey that could take the pulse inside newsrooms across Europe.
openDemocracy distributed the survey across 47 European Council member states with the help of media partners like Index on Censorship, Reporters Without Borders, the European Journalism Centre and the British National Union of Journalists.
Three hundred sixty-four journalists from 41 European countries replied with anecdotes that frequently include cases of financial or political pressure.
Overall, journalists pointed out the increase of sponsored content, which is often left unbranded, and raised their frustrations over increasingly fewer resources being allocated to deep reporting dives.
Most respondents said they were expected to not criticise the paper’s owners or their businesses. Some have been told straightforwardly to avoid criticising a major advertiser or shareholder.
Interviewees stressed that articles negative towards big advertisement buyers were being spiked for no legal or editorial reason when the interests of a business partner were being affected.
In Slovenia, one national press reporter recalls being prevented to ask questions at a drug launch. The company’s marketing representative informed the reporter that the company had struck a deal for positive coverage with the newspapers he was working for. "Luckily, my section editor had sufficient integrity to not publish anything," he recalls.
A case in Italy saw a freelance journalist being told upfront to drop an investigation into a media client’s owner. She had issued an official complaint and, at the time of research, she declared severe stress following background legal discussions.
In Romania, a press watchdog representative explained that not only do companies seek to domesticate critical press with marketing contracts, but editors also make sure that their silence is sought-after by commissioning negative coverage if companies redraw their commercial interest.
In Greece, whistleblowers indicated that some media owners have requested front-page positive stories.
In Portugal, respondents said that they avoided attacking banks and rather reported wrongdoing if and when authorities investigate and find irregularities.
In Germany, one famous publication had a list of celebrities on the wall and reporters were briefed to not criticise them.
This is just a sample of the anecdotes openMedia collected that speak of a questionable relationship between high-ranking media managers and business interests.
Across a region of very different economies, societies and news cultures, journalists pointed out that companies from the pharma, constructions and technology industries were courting national newspapers. Other interviewees pointed at energy companies and the financial sector.
Reporters region-wide have also accused political meddling, beyond political affinities.
This is easily seen in countries like Croatia and Poland, where political elites went as far as to limit or threaten the ability of NGO media to raise foreign funds.
How to report a case of financial pressure in your newsroom
openDemocracy’s collaboration with Index on Censorship has led to a financial pressure news category, which the IoC added on to their media freedom map. The organisation now collects such anecdotes.
openDemocracy’s openMedia team will consider any related case for future investigations. These can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. The address also has a PGP fingerprint that can be used for encrypted messaging: 665E EBD6 3CF6 D734 CE4D 5497 39A4 7083 6EC8 8D30. There is no obligation to provide any contact information.
“Our openMedia project aims to raise awareness among the public about the influences that shape their news sources. It also sets out to stimulate debate within the industry about what further measures can ensure that journalists are free to report on vital areas in the public interest”, said Fitzgerald.
The controversy now surrounding Facebook and 'influence campaigns' generated by the ongoing revelations about Cambridge Analytica presents an opportunity for democracy’s watchdog to look itself in the mirror.
Crina Boroş is an investigative reporter who combines digital skills with legal knowledge and traditional muckraking techniques. She freelances for national and international titles - Reuters, openDemocracy, Computer Weekly - and is part of the Investigate Europe consortium. Crina has been teaching data journalism internationally and has picked up a few distinctions for her reporting. See her portfolio at crinaboros.tumblr.com and get in touch at @CrinaBoros.
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