Is paid content bad for democracy?

The media in India sometimes faces allegations of corruption for not openly saying what news content is paid for and what is not.

Paranjoy Guha-Thakurta, partner at Media Network of India and co-author of Paid News: The Buried Report, the controversial report by the Press Council of India's subcommittee to probe the Paid News scandal, discusses below how paid news is distorting the news agenda. This is followed by suggestions by Aashutosh Katre, Director of Content Specialist Yellow Seed Content Solutions and Girish Huria, Chief Operating Officer at Communications Consultancy Avian Media, about how to create guidelines for a clear paid-editorial content policy.

How corruption in the Indian media undermines democracy

Paranjoy Guha-Thakurta says:

“The fifteenth general elections to the Lok Sabha took place in April-May 2009 and in order to ensure free and fair coverage by the media, the Press Council of India issued guidelines applicable to both government authorities and the press. After the elections, a disturbing trend was highlighted by sections of the media, that is, payment of money by candidates to representatives of media companies for favourable coverage or the phenomenon popularly known as ‘paid news‘.”

“The deception or fraud that such ‘paid news’ entails takes place at three levels. The reader of the publication or the viewer of the television programme is deceived into believing that what is essentially an advertisement is in fact, independently produced news content. By not officially declaring the expenditure incurred on planting ‘paid-news’ items, the candidate standing for election violates the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, which are meant to be enforced by the Election Commission of India under the Representation of the People Act, 1951. Finally, by not accounting for the money received from candidates, the concerned media company or its representatives are violating the provisions of the Companies Act, 1956 as well as the Income Tax Act, 1961, among other laws.”

“The phenomenon of ‘paid news’ goes beyond the corruption of individual journalists and media companies. It has become pervasive, structured and highly organized and in the process, is undermining democracy in India. Large sections of society, including political personalities, those working in the media and others, have already expressed their unhappiness and concern about the pernicious influence of such malpractices.”

“There is an urgent need to protect the right of the public to accurate information before voters exercise their franchise in favour of a particular candidate in the electoral fray.”

How the media can become more transparent

Aashutosh Katre says:

“Communications firms in India could put in place an ethical guide for sponsored/paid content that includes full disclosure of such content. The entire idea of putting information out on the net is so that people can take an informed decision. To draw a parallel, newspaper editorials do mention 'Sponsored Content/ADVT' when putting matter in newspapers out to the public. The idea is to inform people of the nature of the content being printed. With more and more information being accessed online, a basic disclosure would help. However, there is reluctance to do this as such a move might impact advertising revenues and paid content on the net. While full disclosure might mean the brand objectives not being met (as customers are likely not to read through content), not informing the customer/reader that the content is paid for would fall into a grey area. So we need efficient guidelines.”

“To ensure quality control of paid content, relevance and quality in content are paramount. This can be achieved by working with professionals who understand the core objectives and the need for communication and are able to draft, advise and create content that works.”

“Finally, platforms and solutions such as BuzzFeed and Outbrain work do help in aggregating content to relevant audiences, and there definitely is a market for such solutions.”

Girish Huria says:

“One always advocates ethical standards in every aspect of work. So, paid content cannot be an exception. It requires an ethical framework that will ensure that the interests of business and the press are aligned with those of the readers. The PR industry can play a key role in the development of this new paid format. However, we have to ensure that these new developments don’t spoil our relationship with the media houses. We should keep an open mind and experimentation should be encouraged.”

“Sponsored content isn't a new idea. Magazines and newspapers have been running advertorials and special advertiser sections in print for decades. What is needed is full disclosure, which may stir the hornet’s nest. We have to approach this slowly and follow it with discussions to reach a stable, level-playing field. The PR industry cannot jeopardize the trust built over decades with the Indian media. A lot will depend on whether Indian media publishers look at disclosing sponsored content to the consumer as revolutionary or disruptive.”

“At the onset, it needs to be made clear that paid content will not corrupt news, if complete transparency is ensured. It is a known fact that lines are blurring and we have to accept this change. We, however, can certainly quality check the paid content. A good start will be labelling brand journalism. Whether a brand name or promotional blurb is positioned prominently or not is up to the individual publisher. However, publishers who try to be deceptive with this will fail in the long run as readers today are far more sophisticated. In fact, if conversations between the consumers and the client on every piece of paid content is encouraged, quality will not remain an issue at all.”