When I first took up journalism, everyone i knew advised me against it, especially my family. "But the pay is not that great!," they tried to reason with me. They were partially correct. True, it can never match what the IT sector pays but how many sectors can? The pay is not as bad as some people imagine it to be.
However, it was when I did my first internship in a reputed newspaper that I realised journalism could be a lucrative career depending on how flexible you are willing to be with your principles. While covering an art and handicrafts exhibtion, a painter pulled me aside and said, "Sir, see if you can do some publicity for us. I can take care of you." He did not seem to make this offer out of greed. He was poor and just trying to make a living so i just empathized and left. During the course of the internship, there were several such offers for publicity – some covert, some blatant.
I realised it is not just in this way that journalists are lured in exchange for media coverage. It begins with small gifts of pens, notepads, card holders – the essential stationery items required by a journalist. The gifts got more expensive gradually. When I attended events coordinated by PR firms,I received imported pen sets, well crafted jute bags (made my mother happy!), Tupperware, there were lavish lunches at hotels and I was even gifted a bottle of expensive wine during one of the events. I had wanted to give the wine bottle as a gift to my editor at the end of my internship but refrained due to fear of being admonished by her for receiving it.
Most gifts were a part of the media kits given to journalists so unless you made it a point to go through the contents and return them, they were accepted. As an intern I never dwelled too much on the ethical aspect of accepting such gifts. It was an unpaid internship and I was spending out of my pocket for transportation and other expenses incurred so I reasoned with myself that it was a trade off. All the interns would gather around at the end of the day and calculate the worth of gifts they received.
I cannot count the number of times someone has asked me to write about their product or their business the minute they come to know I am a journalist – in return for favours of course. One of my first serious experience with financial incentives being offered to me for "publicity" took place some time recently. I was meeting the vice-principal of a school. Over a cup of coffee, he casually remarked, "Our school has such a small strength. We are looking to increase it but it has been difficult." I knew where the conversation was heading to. "We are looking for someone to do some canvassing for our school. We are willing to pay money for each student who takes admission with your recommendation," he said. I told him that advertising in Citizen Matters could be a good option and that he contact the marketing team for more details. He replied that they had tried advertising in newspapers and it hasn’t worked. "I can give you Rs 4000 per student," he said. I was taken aback by the amount of money offered. Four thousand is a substantial part of my salary. Many days of hard work can be substituted by just recommending a student to their school.
I can see how easy it is to get carried away by all the allure. It becomes increasingly difficult to resist when you are young and constantly being bombarded with offers of gift and money. We cannot just point fingers at factors outside the media fraternity for this state of affairs. During a seminar on Media ethics, a reporter from a well-known news channel openly said that journalists did not have any social responsibilities and that it was just a business. Lines of what is acceptable and what is not become blurred when you look at journalism this way. This attitude, I feel, is already hurting the credibility of journalists. Recently all my friends had come over and we were discussing the career paths each had chosen – one was a software professional, one a mechanical engineer another a genetics students and so on.When it came to me, a friend remarked, "Oh Yogi is a journalist, he is into giving publicity."
Vaishnavi Vittal has shared how this phenomenon has affected local politics, during BBMP elections. See ‘Cash for coverage’ comes to BBMP elections too.
Prabhu M, a former IIJNM student and contributor to Citizen Matters recently expressed his angst about business journalism ethics – The (dis)grace of being a business journalist