Fake News, ‘native’ content and the ethics of arts journalism

I receive emails like this three or four times a week. This is the most recent:

“Good Day,

I hope my e-mail finds you well and fab.

CONFIDENTIAL:

There’s a new […] TV show due to launch[…] for My Client […] and we were wondering if we can do a cover/ insert story with […]?

Details: […]

Suggested story angles & headlines: available on request

Kindly let me know if you’d be keen on this? We would be honoured to be featured on in (sic) your publication or cover.

Best…”

 I’ve removed the details to save the blushes of the person – they call themselves a ‘brand architect’ – who penned this. Otherwise, linguistic infelicities, bad grammar and all, this is the full message. The person hasn’t even bothered to discover who I am or whether I’m in any position to offer a ‘cover/insert story’, even if I’m so inclined.

But it represents a growing and disturbing trend. Advertising agencies broker deals with publications; the publication’s writers generate content based on the “suggested story angles and headlines” brewed up by the agency. Newsrooms are short of staff and resources; media houses need advertising revenue; many editors have abandoned the arts as an area worth serious journalistic coverage. So they grab and run with this offered “story”. Even if no payment changes hands – and there is no suggestion of payment above – an allegedly independent publication potentially allows an outside interested party to set its news agenda.

Often, payment does happen, but by a more indirect route. As Songezo Zibi, former Business Day editor, observed in the 2016 State of the Newsroom report (http://www.journalism.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/STATE-OF-THE-NEWSROOM-2015_2016_FINAL.pdf ): “Instead of selling space in our titles we’re now selling content, meaning as editors we have to sell advertising to clients and usually with a promise of positive editorial coverage.” (The Press Ombud’s Code requires paid content to be labelled as such – but when that specific story is not paid for, merely ‘suggested’ and accompanying advertising elsewhere, the situation becomes much greyer. And when it’s happening in an area of news that many editors don’t respect as such..?

But why, you may wonder, does this matter? After all, it’s only a puff about a new TV series.

First, it’s part of the pervasive creep of external agenda-setting and bought news bedevilling all our media, and brought to light when Bathabile Dlamini’s then-Ministry bought a praise song for her on an SABC station (https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2018-01-17-social-development-has-allegedly-paid-sabc-r500000-to-interview-bathabile-dlamini-but-no-ones-talking/#.Wqjkor1ub5s ).

Secondly, however ‘trivial’ you may consider the subject matter, this is the insertion of fake news into the media. The series may be so run-of-the-mill that it contains absolutely no news worth wasting page space on. Or it may be garbage. Or there may be real news lurking there, which this suggested publicity is designed to mask: presenters haven’t been paid; reality footage may have been (more) faked (than usual); a dozen other possibilities. (Additionally, if an agency genuinely has a powerful story, that agency should write it and send it out as their release. If it’s really news, it’ll get picked up.)

And, thirdly, of course, TV programmes are not trivial (after all, they are watched by millions). They contain multiple potentially engaging and important stories: about their discourse, process, economics and more. The same is true of any arts topic or event.

Attempts to set the news agenda by interested parties aren’t trivial either. Whenever anybody – be it an advertising or PR agency, a commercial company, a government department or some unholy alliance of these – offers journalists “news angles/headlines”, or guidance on the best way to cover something, the shit-detectors of those with an interest in press freedom should blare. Those who pay the piper invariably hope to call the tune.

Arts coverage, currently the neglected orphan of the newsroom, is particularly vulnerable, because editors no longer care to see the story possibilities in it (and not just for the arts pages), and no longer have budget for the specialist writers who can.

So, no, Ms ‘brand architect’. Your email does not find me “fab”. And as for the offer of “news angles/headlines” – thanks, but I’ll pass.

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