Recently I reviewed a research thesis written by Anastasia Grynko, a Ukrainian student based in the U.S., titled “Bribery for News Coverage: Research in Ukraine”. Anastasia interviewed 30 “communication leaders” – 15 leading journalists and 15 well-known PR practitioners – and painted a staggering picture, which perfectly illustrates the hypocrisy traditionally surrounding all ethical issues in our profession.
Particularly, Anastasia concluded that the credibility of the Ukrainian media is very low primarily due to its financial dependence on political or business groups. However, online media are also not credible, even though they have been credited in fuelling the 2004 Orange Revolution by providing a flow of alternative information, compared to the regime-controlled mainstream media.
A journalist said in an interview: “The position of the owner whom media belongs to is important. In Ukraine it is also connected with owner’s wish to have political influence. Now media are often perceived not as a business but as an additional expensive accessory – as a car, house, boat … whatever. ”
Obviously, in such an environment ethics is not on top of the agenda. Not surprisingly, all Anastasia’s respondents agreed that various forms of bribery in exchange for news stories exist in Ukraine. Here is another comment from a journalist (slightly edited for clarity): “Concealed advertising is a great problem for the contemporary Ukrainian media. Whole TV packages in news and entire programs are sold; articles and magazine covers are also sold. It really harms the journalists as it doesn’t allow them to fulfill their professional duties. Because of the numerous “PR materials,” the real journalism is perceived as tainted by the money and even honest journalists are often accused of bribery.”
The researcher hasn’t found a direct correlation between the financial state of the news outlet and its tolerance for paid-for editorial coverage. Even though underfunded local newspapers are most actively engaging in this practice, national glossies are also disguising advertorials as genuine coverage. Most respondents agreed that there’s nothing wrong with advertorials as long as they are clearly marked as such – also, a requirement of the Ukrainian law.
But the most staggering findings concern the respondents’ personal perceptions of ethics. Of the 30 respondents, 18 agreed that the “cash for coverage” practice is commonly accepted, while 21 said they understand why it’s wrong and personally believe that it should be condemned. However, all of them readily name countless reasons justifying the practice, from low salaries to lack of professional culture and unfavorable business environment. None of these “communication leaders” are prepared to take a personal responsibility for what’s happening.
No matter how young a democracy is or how badly the journalists are paid, the Ukrainian case is slightly more extreme than other countries and therefore more illustrative of the universal issue. Isn’t it typical? PR people around the world vocally denounce the unethical practices and bask in their pride of being strictly ethical, but how many actually have the courage to do something about it? Or, do we have the means to do something about it? Me and my Ukrainian colleagues have largely relied on the regime of staying “clean” and hoping to persuade the rest of the community that this actually works better than the other way.
This reminds me of the Toni Muzi Falconi’s recent post on astroturfing and the question he raised: do we dare denounce unethical practices for being simply wrong, or do we need to justify this argument by giving other reasons, such as “it doesn’t work”? Or, to put it another way, do we want to make it easy to become ethical?