Google, the fountainhead of modern knowledge and information gives a link to Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia that defines ‘paid news’ as: an advertisement in the form of an editorial. It goes further to say, “In printed publications, the advertisement is usually written in the form of an objective article and designed to look like a legitimate and independent news story. In television, the advertisement is similar to a short infomercial presentation of products or services. These can either be in the form of a television commercial or as a segment on a talk show or variety show. In radio, these can take the form of a radio commercial or a discussion between the announcer and representative.” There is more on the nature and the mechanisms of what paid news and how it plays out but in Manipur, the ‘paid news’ syndrome became a buzz word in the Assembly Elections last year when the Election Commission cracked its whip on news coverage based on political parties handing out money for the same. Many in the media sector still think paid news is only an election related phenomenon but the truth is more complex and bizarre in Manipur partly because the push and pull factor of media players are much toned down in the absence of major corporate presence in the state. Also, more than the paid news syndrome, here we have either the “Respected Sir/Madam. Greetings and please publish our press release” followed by stringent phone calls or people one knows socially or through family relations calling or dropping in to say, “This absolutely needs to go in print.” There are NGOs and other agencies who have taken the recourse of providing TA/DA for journalists which is supposedly meant to take care of travel costs for journalists but is in reality, an incentive for media practitioners to give good copy.
But when a staff reporter or any working journalist walks back into the newsroom with a gift wrapped tablet phone that runs into a few thousand rupees that outranks the journalist’s monthly salary, it gets dicey for various reasons. A body bans a cement company on the grounds that there are doubts about its quality. A few days after the agency bans the sale of the said cement brand in the state, the agency and the brand manufacturer calls a joint press conference and says that efforts are on to find out who is at fault. Tablet phones are handed out to journalists covering the press conference but what is the point being made with such a gesture if indeed tests are being done and efforts made to find out what is tampering with the quality of the said cement brand? In a state, where resources for news gathering are scare and journalists have to do the grind of going for one press conference after another, the statements of the joint conference would still have made it to newspaper pages even without the tablet phones being handed out as gifts. Yes, in a world of growing competition amongst brands and companies, there are high stakes involved. On the national media front, it is not uncommon even for Government departments to hand out what are commonly known as Government junket trips where travel costs and other areas are taken care of so that journalists write about their work and activities. Even with the non-governmental sector, the cost of media participation is borne by seminar or conference organizers so that their events get covered in the media. But clearly, there needs to be a realization from both the media and the various stakeholders that media coverage that comes with a prize cannot stay true to its content and design. Rather, it plays into the culture of consumerism and implicates the media as another system that can be manipulated by presents and incentives. There must surely be a clear demarcation between advertisements and news on the basis of gifts such as the tablet phones or cash incentives. One hopes that the nagging worry over media ethics and practices is not pushes out as a mere whim but taken up with the seriousness that it deserves. Today, it can be tablet phones and the matter of a clarification that serves the interest of a particular company but tomorrow, it can be much more worse. And before the worse case scenario plays out, it would bode well if certain media codes are kept in place to be honored by both the media houses and other agencies.