Media houses: how much disclosure?

BY Sankrant Sanu| IN Law and Policy | 06/10/2014
MEDIA REGULATION DEBATE: While useful, TRAI's recommendations on the media were insufficient. We can do much more to restore the media's credibility and one way to start is to impose a disclosure policy,
says SANKRANT SANU.
The credibility of Indian journalism is at an all time low. If you follow the interactions on Twitter and the scandals that have rocked the Indian media in recent years, the rot goes deep, from the Radia tapes to the alleged Tejpal rape.
 
Allegations of ‘paid news’ and the epithet ‘newstrader’ have stuck. While Newslaundry deplores the working conditions of journalists and the harassment faced by women in the profession, the fat cats of the media houses enjoy disproportionate wealth. Restoring the media’s credibility means cleaning the stables and that is as daunting a project as de-polluting the Ganga. 
 
The TRAI report, “Issues on Media Ownership” published in August and already discussed extensively by the Hoot, makes a start in the direction of restoring media credibility, though it has resulted in little action yet.
 
However, most of its recommendations are around media ownership restrictions rather than transparency and accountability. It focuses on the idea that the primary challenge to media objectivity is the outside interests of media owners, such as other businesses ownerships or political party affiliations.
 
But with paid news, the cozy relationships with political parties and the increasing opposition to mainstream journalists in social media, it is the credibility of the media that is cause for concern. This fact also belies the myth that, by simply restricting ownership of outside businesses, you will restore credibility.
 
Rather than restrict media ownership, the focus must shift to transparency and accountability. In a democracy, fair and objective reporting should ideally be a prerequisite. The fourth estate is a pillar on which the success of the modern democratic experiment rides.
 
With the loss of credibility and the rise of social media, the traditional media also face the threat of increased dis-intermediation and irrelevance. Simply clamouring for privileged access, as the Editor’s Guild has done, with a government ill-disposed to media coteries, will also be insufficient.
 
For years Indian media houses benefitted from their proximity to the centre of power. Successive governments encouraged a darbari culture in which government advertising and under-the-table largesse from the ruling party greased the wheels. A corrupted media cannot be a watchdog. Therefore, it is to full disclosure that our emphasis must shift.
 
What kind of disclosure? Here are some suggestions to begin with, many of which exist in different formal and informal ways for media outlets across the globe.  Given the rot in India, we should hold media owners and employees to standards of disclosure similar to those we expect from our electoral candidates. In particular, it is very important to disclose any potential conflicts of interest with the subject matter being covered. We would like to see media outlets disclose:
 
1. Names of all owners and organizations with a greater than and aggregate 5% stake, including via controlled trusts or other intermediate entities (“insiders”). 

2. Complete asset disclosures of media owners as defined above, as well as senior editors and functionaries of a media organization, updated on an annual basis.
 
3. Political party affiliations of media owners, editors and members of their family.

4. List of advertisers or business interests that result in greater than 1% of monthly revenue, by month.

5. Any outside compensation received or promised for coverage by the owner, editor, producer, reporter or other employee, besides the salary received from the media house as part of employment.

6. Any business interests or personal relationship or political party affiliations of journalists, editors etc., if related to a story. 

7. Disclosure of any in-kind perks including travel compensation, meals, tickets or quid quo pros received in the coverage of any story. 

8. A perks policy for a media house, which is public and which defines that kind of outside perks such as in (5) or (6) that employees may receive.

9. For financial reporters and their chain of command, disclosure of ownership, options, contracts or short interest in a stock that they report about and publicly stated trading restrictions on stocks they cover. (See MotleyFool.com for a policy like this.)

10. Percentage of paid news (which must be marked) and advertising space/time must also be fully disclosed on a periodic basis. For example, in this quarter, different editions of the Times of India contained 60% advertising content and 20% paid news. A similar calculation of “content ratio” can also be made available by broadcast media. Also, revenue disclosure by percentage of money made through subscriptions and advertising (including paid news) must be made.
 
Given that news reporting has a significant impact on opinion-making, the importance of factual, unbiased reporting should be paramount. Reporting should follow the model of securities law disclosure. This will set a far higher bar for journalism than is currently in vogue. 
 
Many news organizations already have policies in place for conflict of interest. See, for instance, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Conflict of Interest policies that prohibit acceptance of free travel and prohibit coverage of related parties. The overall journalistic standard and practices of CBC are also worth a close look.
 
If a news outlet covers a story that is about an ‘insider’, disclosure must be made in the story. For example, if Mukesh Ambani owns a media house and it is covering one of his companies, this must be disclosed in the print or broadcast story.
 
Similarly, any other compensation or conflicts covered by clauses 1-7 above must be disclosed. In some cases, these may be abbreviated in print or broadcast with the full disclosure being made online. (e.g. “Sohna Foods is an advertiser in the Times of India, see full disclosure online,” or “Rajdeep’s travel expenses to the medical conference were paid by Pfizer, please see our perks policy”).
 
Given the severe crisis of confidence in the Indian media and the rampant use of ‘paid news’, these disclosure policies need to be written into law. Civil and, in some cases, criminal, penalties must accrue in failures to disclose.
 
Without a legal framework, it is impossible to hold the media responsible for collusion and corruption. At the same time, there must be industry-wide policies on compensation, overtime and sexual harassment of workers in the media industry so that rank and file journalists are adequately compensated and protected.
 
There must also be a higher degree of fact checking as well as accountability for reporting that could cause public harm. The live coverage of the Mumbai terrorist attack put our security forces at additional risk.
 
Journalists and broadcasters need additional sensitization in the area. Also, all media outlets, beyond a particular size, must have an independent ombudsman to address issues of neutrality or misreporting.
 
An area that is more difficult to deal with is news suppression. Editorial judgment will always be in play on whether a story is newsworthy. However, adequate mechanisms need to be put in place to prevent stories from being killed because of political or business pressure.
 
Whistleblower protection laws should cover insiders who reveal story suppression and other forms of corruption in the media and they should be protected, honoured and rewarded.
 
While these requirements may initially seem onerous, they will go a long way towards restoring trust in the media. Initially, as the TRAI recommendations also suggest, these can be applied to print and broadcast media, since social and online media is still emerging (though top online media outlets should move in the direction of disclosure as well). They can also be only applied to media houses beyond a certain size in total revenues so as not to unduly burden smaller outlets.
 
If we are serious about cleaning up the media, these steps will go a long way to treating the media as a legitimate pillar of democracy. As with any change, it is likely that many in the media will balk at these disclosures since they have benefitted from a climate of corruption and collusion.
 
Consequently, this cannot be seen as only a voluntary exercise. Without legal enforcement, the media’s credibility will continue its downward spiral.
 
Sankrant Sanu is an author and entrepreneur based in Seattle and Gurgaon.  He is a graduate of IIT Kanpur and the University of Texas and holds six technology patents. Twitter: @sankrant.
 
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