Why can’t researchers just pay the media to cover their work?

WCSJ London
“Why can’t researchers pay media to cover their work?”

This was the question asked by one African editor participating in the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists held in London last week. He raised it during a luncheon session titled ‘Friendship or Friction: How the media relates to the research community’ organised by the UK Department for International Development (DFID).

The question was asked in apparent sincerity and seriousness. Since media space/time is limited, and different groups and interests are competing to get in, he reasoned, why can’t research budgets include a legitimate allocation for buying newspaper space or radio/TV air time.

Luckily, good sense prevailed and the suggestion was gently cast aside by the moderator. Participants felt such a practice, if allowed, could seriously distort both the news values of media organisations and their public service brief. Listening to this exchange in the audience, I heaved a sigh of relief.

It’s true that many mainstream media organisations are struggling these days to stay in business. But resorting to selling their column inches or air time to the highest bidder would take them a whole different realm where advertising and public relations set the agenda.

This can cast a long and dubious shadow...
This can cast a long and dubious shadow...
This 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’.

In August 2007, I wrote an op ed essay on this concern, titled ‘Cheque-book Development’ Corrupting the Media?. It appeared in several websites, and was later reprinted in newspapers such as Nepali Times. I was reacting to a disturbing trend where development agencies were simply throwing money at the media to gain access for their (supposedly public interest) messages.

I wrote: “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’.”

Read full essay: ‘Cheque-book Development’ Corrupting the Media?

I have long argued, and shown with results, that there is really no need for productive researchers to pay anything to have their work covered in the media. If all they want is to bring the essence of their analysis, findings and recommendations to the attention of public and policy makers, there are ways they can engage the media without paying. I’ve called this Hitch-hiking with the media.

If on the other hand, researchers or their institutions want ego-massaging, vanity-promoting kind of coverage, the media will be far less likely to provide that for free. Throwing money is then the only way forward, but beware: it’s a slippery slope…

See also:
1 December 2007: Moving images moving research…beyond academic circles
16 December 2007: Teleuse@BOP film launched at GK3 – Interactive Quiz – a novel format to communicate research

Read SciDev.Net’s blog post on the same session

24/7 TV Deficit: When more (channels) gives us less (news)…

WCSJ London

When Cable News Network – or CNN – was launched in June 1980, it became the first network to provide 24-hour television news coverage, and the first all-news television network in the United States. Most people didn’t believe it would last for long, for they could hardly believe that there was enough news to fill all hours of the day and night.

They had reasons to be skeptical: at the time all major TV channels and networks in North America, Europe and elsewhere carried an hour or two of well-packaged and well-presented news bulletins per day. Viewers looked forward to these bulletins, when able and amiable anchors like Walter Cronkite – ‘the most trusted man in America’ – entered their living rooms for an update and reflection on the day’s events. A leader had to be assassinated or men had to walk on the Moon for this routine to be broken…

CNN founder Ted Turner changed all that. He proved the skeptics wrong, and blazed a new trail in broadcast journalism. In his wake, dozens and now hundreds of all-news channels have emerged, providing a cacophony of coverage and punditry as never before seen.

Saturated with news on TV? Reach out for this relief!
Saturated with news on TV? Reach out for this relief!

One of the early, unofficial expansions of CNN was ‘covering news needlessly’. This was sometimes necessary to fill 24 hours a day (or 1,440 minutes) and 7 days a week (or 168 hours). The channels say repetition is meant to give the chance for any viewer to catch up on the news whatever time she tunes in. But the question remains: is there so much news to fill not only 24/7 but hundreds of such channels?

The answer is both yes – and no. It all depends on the definition of news, and what each channel considers to be in the public interest. We won’t get into that big debate here. But the fact remains that, at least where the numerous all-news channels in Asia are concerned, they often struggle to fill their air time – and not always very successfully.

And do we have an abundance of such channels. India alone now has more than 60 all-news channels catering to a billion+ audience in dozens of languages…and more keep popping up. Elsewhere in countries such as the Philippines, Pakistan and Thailand, there have been similar channel explosions in recent years. This is partly triggered by media liberalisation which allowed local and foreign private companies to enter the broadcast sector that earlier remained a state monopoly.

Aryn Baker of TIME
Aryn Baker of TIME
But more channels has not necessarily meant better coverage of news. There was a perceptive observation by Time magazine’s Aryn Baker in a recent essay she wrote in June 2009 about the state of Pakistan’s media. In her essay titled Casualty of War, she noted: “In 2002, the then President, General Pervez Musharraf, permitted private TV stations to broadcast news instead of just the state-owned Pakistan Television Corp. At the time, Musharraf’s deregulation was hailed as a significant step for the nascent free-press movement; indeed, today there are more than 30 nongovernment TV stations in the country. As TV stations proliferated, I argued that increased competition would force the emergence of a strong, ethical and responsible media corps. But there simply aren’t enough well-trained and -informed local journalists to supply the dramatically greater number of media outlets. I also assumed that consumers would gravitate toward truth. Instead the bulk of readers and viewers seem comfortable with sensationalism and xenophobia — as reflected by an April poll conducted by Gallup Pakistan revealing that 76% of Pakistanis “believe Pakistani media [are] unbiased to a great or somewhat extent.” In other words, Pakistanis like their media the way they are.

Baker cites examples where the print and broadcast media in Pakistan regularly rumour and peddle conspiracy theories as news. She ends with a strong plea: “Pakistan’s press needs to take a hard look at itself and its level of professionalism. Only then will it live up to its potential, and only then will Pakistan get the media it deserves.”

Shooting the news...
Shooting the news...
I couldn’t agree more. Having cheered the collapse of state broadcasting monopolies across Asia in the 1990s, I have very much felt the same way about news channels across the region (here I’m talking about the English language channels only, which are outnumbered in most markets by local language channels). While there are a few news channels that stand above the rest, a majority would come close to what Aryn Baker describes for Pakistan.

Speaking at the 6th World Conference of Science Journalists held in London in early July, I called this the ’24/7 TV Deficit’ in Asia’s broadcast media. In summary, it is this: In the developed world, all-news channels like CNN evolved over time, building capacity and experience along the way. In emerging Asia, news channel explosion hasn’t allowed time for such evolution – so skills and resources are spread too thin. There are genuine limitations of competence and capacity. Sometimes this leads to sensationalism or distortion.

I said: “The long term response to this is to invest in training and capacity building of journalists and producers already working in the media. For the most part, they learn on the job, making mistakes on the air. This is far from ideal.”