Kristin Palitza
Kristin Palitza

Ethics? Sold out

Imagine this: a news presenter is being offered a sponsorship deal worth half-a-million rand by one of the broadcaster’s advertisers. In exchange, one of the station’s DJs (not the news presenter) would read out the company’s ad during an entertainment feature shortly after the news bulletin. Kosher or not?

The news presenter, perhaps understandably, finds it hard to let go of the promised perk and feels unsupported by the news editor, who is deeply concerned about objectivity, independence and credibility of the newsroom.

While some might see this case as a micro-issue (the journalist might accept the gift yet continue to report critically and objectively on the gift-giving company; and there’s the belief that editorial independence is a myth anyway), others are alarmed about overriding one of the fundamental principles of journalism: the strict separation of news and advertising.

So where does one draw the line between a financial perk and potential bribery?

It would perhaps make sense to use the journalist code of the New York Times, one of the world’s most respected papers, as a guideline. Under the heading “Protecting our neutrality”, the code states that “staff members and those on assignment for us may not accept anything that could be construed as a payment for favourable coverage or for avoiding unfavourable coverage. They may not accept gifts, tickets, discounts, reimbursements or other benefits from individuals or organisations covered (or likely to be covered) by their newsroom.”

Unfortunately, not all South African newsrooms have a code of conduct to which they can refer in times of uncertainty and crisis. Especially in smaller newsrooms, (management) staff are, quite understandably, concerned with getting the news out quickly, and often have neither the time nor the human resources to research and implement policies and procedures.

It all goes well until a difficult case pops up, and instead of whipping out the relevant policy, debates revolve around personal views and opinions rather than agreed procedures and facts. To make rules when a disagreement reaches fever pitch is rather difficult.

What adds another layer of complexity is that the lines between news and advertising are generally getting more and more blurred. There is, for example, my pet hate, the “advertorial”, which tries to trick readers into believing it is part of the editorial section; we watch sponsored weather forecasts and entertainment programmes and listen to radio journalists lending their voices to ads to earn some extra cash (or for their stations to save fees on voice-overs).

Similarly, the division between entertainment and news has become less and less clear. And while it is by and large seen as acceptable for entertainers to accept gifts, be sponsored or even act in an ad (as they are seen as some sort of celebrities, not as journalists), a set of completely difficult rules (and ethical standards) applies to their colleagues, the news presenters.

Unfair? I don’t think so, because there is, or at least should be, a very clear distinction between the two professions — the one, one enters to entertain and perhaps become famous, while the other one chooses for far more idealistic reasons: firstly to make a contribution to the public’s right to access to (objective) information and only secondly to make money.