When consuming news media: buyers beware. Although a free and independent media is a key ingredient of democracy, this has never meant the media is unbiased. Most people know where on the political spectrum their chosen information source sits. In the UK, the Daily Mirror is a Labour paper; the Telegraph is Conservative. In the U.S. Fox News, despite its ‘free and fair’ tagline is known to be home to the (reactionary) right.
It’s only when one particular bias stifles free speech or blurs the line between real news and sensationalism that the most important function of the fourth estate, holding those in power to account, is put in jeopardy. There are two scenarios where this can limit the media’s watchdog role: when independent press is censored, as in a dictatorship, or powerful commercial interests muzzle criticism.
The radical transformation of the media landscape in the digital era has brought about a scenario where the latter scenario is beginning to undermine the purpose, if not the power, of a free press. With a drastic drop in sales of print media, and an increasingly saturated market in which traditional journalism competes with less formal or professional reporting, media outlets are increasingly looking to alternative ways to maintain market share and attention spans through the use of sensationalism and frantic news hunting.
1) Media Ownership
The ownership of media outlets – whether state-run, privately owned, or public service broadcasters – is a crucial factor for the independence and integrity of the media.
Where media companies are formally owned by the state, the government may exercise a strong influence, censoring stories, stifling investigations into high profile cases and generally compromising the neutrality of reporting.
Privately owned media companies carry equally significant challenges as they can become beholden to certain public figures, individuals or corporate interests, who use them to promote a certain image of themselves, their opponents, or a certain issue or product. Concentrated ownership is most worrisome; where one or few individuals or firms own the majority of media companies in a country, heavily undermining neutrality and pluralism.
Governments must create and enforce legal frameworks to promote transparency of ownership of the media through active disclosure of ownership structures to independent media regulators or authorities. This information should be available to the public in a clear and accessible way.
Some innovative initiatives are being piloted by journalists themselves, such as by Reporters without Borders in Colombia, whose database enables the public to examine the concentration of media ownership and related conflicts of interest by publishing and analysing data about media companies' holdings and beneficial owners.
Austria is considered as an example of good practice in regulating media ownership. A 2011 Austrian media law permits anyone to look up the owners of print, broadcast and online media. Media companies are obliged to disclose the information directly to the public and report details of their owners, including information on all shareholdings, beneficial owners and those with indirect interests and control.
2) Funding and non-transparent advertising
Financing models are closely connected to the issue of ownership. In both instances of public and private ownership, the media sector’s growing reliance on non-traditional sources of revenue (i.e. not physical sales) makes it vulnerable to undue influence through new funding sources. Whether state subsidies or private contribution, media companies’ reliance on funding streams tied to special interests is a real challenge to the integrity of their journalism.
The growing recourse of media outlets to non-transparent advertising is an area of great concern. Searching for alternative revenue streams, many media companies enter into agreements with public relations agencies, government bodies or advertising companies to publish advertisements or promotional material disguised as editorials or other pieces of news.
To combat this, governments and relevant authorities such as media oversight bodies and tax offices must oblige media companies to disclose their financial information, especially regarding their sources of income.
3) Integrity of journalists' work
Besides nontransparent advertising, corruption in the media sector can also be carried out by journalists, editors, and other actors. Lack of professional standards due to limited resources, low quality control, low salaries and technical capacity are likely to influence the ethical framework of media institutions.
As the main stakeholders in this process, media companies have a central role in promoting media integrity. They should be the main drivers of promoting integrity and transparency.
There are a variety of ways they can do this. Media outlets can provide journalists and staff with adequate ethics and integrity training, and establish internal integrity systems with clear codes of conduct with policies regulating conflicts of interest, gifts and due diligence for advertising decisions. Sanctions for non-compliance and whistleblower protection policies can also help promote good practice.
Ultimately, the sustainability of journalism, especially investigative journalism, rests upon a reputation for integrity, ethical conduct and credibility.
By Mariana Sosa Cordero
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