Time for media to ban cash for comment

Update: June, 21/2012 - 09:28

by Thu Huong Le

As we celebrate the 87th year of Viet Nam Revolutionary Journalism Day today, let me honour the journalists who help fight corruption, who write stories that give us clear-headed insights into Government policies, and who bring the lives of the voiceless into the spotlight.

But it's harder to find those who refuse to become "envelope journalists", those who accept money in return for writing favourable stories. Indeed, few reporters dare to return cash to organisers of conferences, press meetings and other events.

Favourable media coverage means putting a positive spin on the information. But as we all know, pocketing these inducements may destroy a journalist's objectivity, neutrality and credibility.

In Viet Nam, many media people do not realise the side-effects of "envelope journalism". In 2009, a group of people was arrested for pretending to be journalists so they could receive these envelopes at conferences and events. Some journalists described them as "worms that spoil the broth".

There are plenty of excuses to accept these inducements. These range from low incomes, keeping friendly with the sources of information - or simply to pay for the petrol to get to the event.

And some veteran journalists boast about their ability to create close links with the Government because they get bigger envelopes. However, acceptance is hard to explain by those working at prestigious news organisations, where writers can earn up to VND10 -20 million (US$480-960) a month.

If journalists continue taking even small amounts of cash and unconsciously write something in favour of the donors, they are exchanging their positions as guardians of truth for promoters of other people's information.

Readers are smart. They quickly realise when there is a sense of twisting and skewing the truth in a publication.

In sensitive, big stories, journalists need to be even more reluctant to accept the envelopes freely offered. They must decide whether it's easier to write with a clear conscience or to be a servant of the stakeholders.

Accepting envelopes is not the only way to cultivate sources, as any true veteran will tell you. In fact, in some countries, such as Australia, journalists' associations and publishers forbid the acceptance of any money or gifts by journalists - even at Christmas.

Red envelopes

A report published by the Washington DC-based Centre for Media Assistance in 2010, titled Cash for Coverage: Bribery of Journalists Around the World, suggested that the problem was global – from "red envelopes" in China to "brown envelopes" in Africa. Even in mainstream America, journalists were paid large sums for delivering positive coverage for the Bush Administration's No Child Left Behind Act.

The report also pointed out that the difficulty in solving the problem of cash for coverage was that it involved three different sets of players: the journalists who get paid, the corporations and governments who pay - and the public relations professionals who play the role of the middlemen.

In Viet Nam, most major media organisations are concentrated in big cities, which constantly have to compete for news at the national level. News is often delivered and developed through events and conferences, forcing reporters to get most of their stories by attending these events. This makes it easier for "envelope journalism" to occur.

However, one would think that at least Government sources would know that any stories they produce would get basic coverage. Most journalists would prefer having officers answer their questions freely and openly rather than handing out cash for comment.

There should be a clear distinction between journalists attending promotional events and news events. It may be acceptable for journalists to accept envelopes or other kinds of presents at PR promotions, but their pieces must be identified as such.

Cash in envelopes should be made a prohibited practice at news events. Most journalists are hungry for news, so if they are fed with the latest information, there are more than happy.

Perhaps newspapers should develop a code of ethics. The New York Times has a letter format for journalists to return their gifts. Working for such a prestigious organisation is already a privilege that cannot be bought.

We can also do the same in Viet Nam. Newspapers should make it clear that stories skewed to please authorities or companies will not be published. Journalism students can also be taught this at schools.

At a recent beauty contest at one of the journalism schools in Ha Noi, the student, who was later crowned, said she believed it was not totally wrong for journalists to accept envelopes if they didn't distort the truth. I hope other students do not think the same. — VNS