In their ceaseless efforts to keep their organisations in the media spotlight, spin doctors of development agencies are distorting news values and corrupting the media, turning issue-based communication products into ‘logo delivery mechanisms’.
In this essay, I draw on several years of first hand observations in development, humanitarian and broadcasting circles at Asian and global levels. I focus on a disturbing practice that more and more development/humanitarian agencies engage in: paying intermediaries for getting their stories on global news and current affairs TV channels.
This is nothing short of cash-for-media coverage.
Here’s an extract:
“As development organisations compete more intensely for external funding, they are increasingly adopting desperate strategies to gain higher media visibility for their names, logos and bosses.
“Communication officers in some leading development and humanitarian organisations have been reduced to publicists. When certain UN agency chiefs tour disaster or conflict zones, their spin doctors precede or follow them. Some top honchos now travel with their own ’embedded journalists’ – all at agency expense.
“In this publicity frenzy, these agencies’ communication products are less and less on the issues they stand for or reforms they passionately advocate. Instead, the printed material, online offerings and video films have become ‘logo delivery mechanisms’.”
Some of these communication officers I write about have become friends over the years — I empathise with their pressures, but don’t approve of what their organistions do. As I write in the essay:
“This practice is wrong on two counts. One, allowing intermediaries to sell access to the airwaves is a form of corruption. Two, every time this happens, it siphons off tax-payer supported development funds intended for combating poverty and suffering in the majority world.
“It is the reverse of cheque-book journalism, where some media organisations pay celebrity or other sources for exclusive access to their stories. When development agencies are paying sections of the media to get promotional or favourable stories aired, we must call it ‘cheque-book development’.”
Make no mistake — this is a form of media corruption. It’s not just the development sector’s vanity that fuels this process. Many 24/7 news channels are struggling to fill their hours inexpensively. Some turn a blind eye to ethical sourcing as long as they can have a steady supply of subsidised content.
Note: Being a US-anchored outlet, MediaChannel.org spells ‘cheque-book’ as ‘check-book’, which is correct in American spelling of English! As I write in my essay, it appears that TV channels and networks on that side of the Atlantic seem a bit harder to corrupt. But then, what do I know?
I have been speaking about the growing threat of cheque-book development for some time. For instance, I referred to it during Communicating Disasters: An Asian Brainstorming organised by TVE Asia Pacific and UNDP in Bangkok in December 2006.