A Fourth Estate gone down the sewer

A Gallup International perception survey done for Transparency International Zimbabwe gives the local media a saddening grading of six out of the ten most corrupt institutions in the country, sharing Mammon’s high table with the police, political parties, parliament, the civil service and the judiciary.

Tawanda Majoni
Tawanda Majoni

My experience as a journalist over the years gives me no reason to doubt this; indeed, the cash-for-coverage scourge is so far-flung it is now dishonest to describe the media as the Fourth Estate.

By saying this, though, I do not intend to place myself in a controversial hyperbole, because I am convinced we still have a notable number of untainted journalists out there.

There are those that simply flinch at the idea of selling a little media love; there are those that just do not have the chance to do so; and there are those that do not see it necessary.

Yet we have so many who would scramble at the drop of a coin, and these are the lot about whom we should have all reason to grieve.

Bribery, shockingly, afflicts all tiers of the newsroom profile, right from the intern. It is easy for beneficiaries of bribery, chief among them politicians, musicians and artists, CEOs and industry captains as well as celebrities and underground mafia to overawe interns with thin envelopes because they are largely susceptible to that given their greenness. But it becomes more disturbing when more senior journalists and newsroom managers are the culprits, as is the case.

Newsroom bribery adorns two general forms, the direct and indirect. Direct bribery happens when journalists take bribes as gain for writing or spiking stories for the advantage of those that pay.

Where stories are written, they are designed to portray an institution, body or personality in positive light or to dilute a crisis. In all cases, journalists overtly or subtly demand the bribes or the beneficiaries make the offer, again directly or subtly.

Indirect cash (or gifts) for coverage is tricky and scrambled, to the extent that, on the surface, it may not appear as though journalists or stables receive favours for positive coverage.

There is indirect pressure on newsrooms, as when a corporate body, aware that a media outlet is pursuing a negative story around it, offers to give the stable advertisements.

Here, it becomes difficult for the stable to run the damaging story because it needs the money to pay its workers. I know of many journalists who have, preposterously, been fired from their jobs for writing and running stories that attack the stable’s advertiser.

The indirect genre also assumes more complex nuances, such as the unusually regular lunch or sundowner or selective promotions of, pay rises or lucrative assignments for journalists on a particular desks.

When you talk to journalists who dabble in bribery, you often get the impression that they are convinced the world owes them a salutary requiem for their despicable disposition. They moan about poor or delayed salaries and tell you that, after all, there is no harm in stashing some small envelope away.

But nothing could be farther from the truth, for bribe taking in the media, like anywhere else, is absolutely an ethical abomination, to the extent that it can NEVER be justified.

It undermines fundamental ethical values-truth, balance, objectivity, fairness-and leaves the news consumer the poorer. It gives journalism a bad name and takes away the watchdog brand from the profession.

Given the complexity that comes with bribery in the media, particularly as gatekeepers are involved and evidence is mostly hard to extract, is it possible to effectively deal with the malignancy?

Yes, it is possible to stem it. Identifying and stunting bribery in the newsroom, though, requires elaborate and cautious approaches and calls on concerted efforts from news people, institutions and members of the public.

An essential step is to gain an appreciation of the signs and symptoms of media love merchandising, for that forms the basis for taking action against the culprits.

It might not look easy to combat newsroom bribery, but it is possible. What is important is the will power.

Post published in: Analysis

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