Hungary: Journalism waits for a fresh start after years of crisis
By Balázs Weyer
In a country that is one of Europe’s youngest democracies the political culture is combative, the media industry is in the midst of a financial meltdown and the communications revolution is putting traditional newsrooms to the sword. It should come as no surprise that a deep sense of anxiety has settled over journalism in Hungary.
Talk of ethics and journalism standards raises serious questions at the best of times, but in an era of widespread disillusion when reporters and editors are demotivated because of huge concerns over job security, keeping the spirit of credible self-regulation alive in the newsroom is a massive challenge.
Nevertheless, even in the teeth of financial crisis and political pressure most journalists remain acutely aware that newsroom standards matter and many do the best they can to keep an ethical balance as they navigate through the news agenda in an era of uncertainty and change.
Smart journalists instinctively know how to keep out of trouble. They work around the hottest issues and avoid situations that might challenge their conscience or provoke a conflict with the editor, the owner, or the sales team. This way they can keep an ethical clean sheet. But even if they have a clear conscience, journalists are always at risk when they have no control over the platforms that publish their works, much less the social context in which they are perceived.
To many in Hungarian journalism some traditional ethical requirements are seen as outdated or simply impossible to follow in current conditions. Traditional means of ensuring quality such as copy editing, fact checking or providing a right of reply are frequently overruled. The modern newsroom is ruled by the need for speed and austerity.
Increasingly, journalists are expected to accept the realities of a competitive media market. Be professional, there are limits to what can be achieved, get over your misgivings they are told. And they are thus released from those old-fashioned rules that used to separate fact from opinion. In the new digital world treat everything as a blog: be strident, witty and get yourself noticed in the noisy news world of digital and converged journalism.
Political bias, too, is becoming routine and increasingly acceptable. Journalists struggle to recognise that in Hungary’s deeply divided and distrustful society even political neutrality is seen as bias.
No political journalist, media outlet, public figure or celebrity can avoid political labelling, whether the like it or not. And this creates a context that curtails the ability of journalists to keep control over the perception of their work.
In a survey conducted among top editors and journalists of quality newsrooms (by a joint effort of research company Nézopont Intézet, PR agency Uniomedia and media self-regulation NGO Editors’ Forum), nearly 200 journalists were anonymously asked about their feelings regarding the current state of journalism and their personal situation.
Out of ten values listed, ‘political independence’ proved to be the least true for journalism in general (with a value of 2.08 on a 1-5 scale), although when it came to their personal political independence, journalists claimed it to be much better and gave a 3.63 mark on average.
Most of the editors and journalists said that they personally are not corrupt (mark: 4.23) but they had a much more critical stand on journalists around them in general (mark: 2.49). Respondents valued their personal integrity and qualifications much higher in every aspect than that of their colleagues in general.
However, ‘being motivated’ was ranked the fourth place when they marked their colleagues and just eighth when came to them personally.
An alarming sign of disillusionment of journalists is that only 60 percent of the responders said that if they were career entrants again, they would surely or at least possibly choose journalism as a profession again. Some 90 percent of those who claimed to be disillusioned said that they are only disillusioned by how journalism is conducted in Hungary, and only 10 percent claimed that they are disillusioned with journalism in general.
The table below, from the same survey, focusing on the difference between theory and practice, expectations and reality, is very telling.
Shockingly, the principle given the highest rank in theory (‘Media has to provide impartial and objective information’) is ranked last in practice. On the other hand, the one ranked last in theory (‘Media shall serve owners’ interests’) is ranked top in practice.
As stated earlier, journalists are more at ease with their personal situation than with that of other journalists’ in the country in general. On a 1-5 scale they gave a confident 4.51 mark on the statement that ‘I do my job with clear conscience’ and a 4.04 on ‘What I do is useful for the society’. ‘I can report independently from political pressure’ got 3.75, while independence from business and advertisers is valued lower and got 2.99.
However, 50 percent of journalists claimed that, with varying regularity, they have to act against their professional conscience. More than half of them claimed that it has happened several times in the preceding year.
Regarding ethical standards, 52 percent of journalists responded that their newsroom has a code of ethics and they are aware of its content and 44 percent claimed they take it seriously. 8 percent claimed that although they know there is a code of ethics somewhere, they are not familiar with it.
The overall picture is that journalists are well aware of ethical standards and they are also aware of unethical practices around them. However, most feel that despite the challenges and against the odds they somehow manage to keep their personal journalistic integrity. Even if this cannot be true for all, it does show that there is an internal demand for ethical practice. However, the gap between theory and practice shows why so many media practitioners are frustrated and suffer from low morale.
Few ethical cases reach the level of an open conflict, the most recent being the most bitter. In late May 2014 Origo.hu, the country’s leading online news source published articles that reported on outstandingly expensive government-paid trips by the minister in charge of the Prime Minister’s Office. After the minister refused to comment on the purpose of the three trips and his travel companions, Origo went to court to get the data released through the procedure of the Public Information Act.
The court forced the government to release the data claimed by the journalists a judgement that prompted harsh criticism from the minister – and Origo.hu, owned by a subsidiary of the Germen Deutsche Telekom, fired the editor-in-chief Gergo Saling two days later. Saling’s dismissal was followed by a spontaneous demonstration at the headquarters of the company. I’m happy to declare an interest here, because for more than a decade, I was the editor-in-chief of Origo and the predecessor of Saling.
In a handful of days more than half of the newsroom staff gave in their notice to quit in protest. Although the company claimed that Saling’s dismissal had nothing to do with politics, and was motivated by synergies inside the group, the case was widely and stridently covered, including editorials, testimonies and other forms of professional solidarity published in all kinds of media – a rare gesture on the Hungarian media landscape.
In recent years, there has been a positive discussion of ethics and regulation of journalism. A self-regulatory body, Editors’ Forum launched in 2012, placed ethics squarely on the agenda of newsrooms. Also, a closed Facebook discussion group organised among top young journalists has become a focus for heated debates on ethical issues.
Self-regulation at the enterprise level
Most legacy media outlets have a code of ethics – although it is usually out of sight and rarely invoked. Ethics were never an integral part of journalism education in the country until, after the political changes of 1990, new generations turned to Western patterns of newsroom behaviour. The formal introduction of editorial guidelines to shape the ethical framework of newsroom work have not become embedded in journalistic society, although the situation has slowly improved in the past 25 years.
Certain rules, such as those regarding conflict to interests, the right to comment, the protection of minors, and the presumption of innocence, are almost universally recognised. Nevertheless, effective in-house self-regulation, references to ethical standards in newsroom debates or open discussion of ethical issues are rare.
Media outlets do not have transparent systems for dealing with complaints. It does not mean they don’t respond to complainants though. They do respond to formal complaints that carry with them the threat of litigation that are laid by politicians, businessmen, or high-profile celebrities.
Many of these complaints are handled transparently – corrections are published or rejected and dealt with by the court. Media outlets usually publish if they have rejected a formal complaint and report on these court cases.
Many complaints are the subject of confidential deals where, for example, a supportive interview gets published by the plaintiff or the respective outlet provides ad space for an initiative in the plaintiff’s interest.
Complaints laid by readers are usually not handled transparently. Most get no response; some are published in the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section. Although many outlets refer to self-regulation and industry organisations in their imprint, as a channel through which formal complaints can be handled, very few media make a voluntary commitment to answer every complaint in a reasonable timeframe.
Institutions as ‘news ombudsman’ or ‘readers’ editor’ are non-existent. There had been two short-lived attempts to introduce news ombudsmen: two nationwide dailies made such an effort. The ombudsmen of Magyar Hírlap and Népszabadság were external appointments but did not deal with individual readers’ complaints. Instead, they published a subjective personal analysis every fortnight on what they found, good or bad, in the paper. At first these appointments were greeted enthusiastically, but they faded away, without much mourning, soon after.
On the corporate level ethical standards are not a concern for managements and owners. Most media managements do not address journalism ethics; these are left to newsroom managers – with a few respectable exceptions.
Very few newsrooms have a say in corporate issues. There is only one legacy media, weekly news magazine HVG, where journalists can vote themselves on their editor-in-chief every three years and an elected council of journalists has a consultative role in corporate issues. In addition there are one or two digital new media start-ups, which have been launched and owned by journalists that have systems of internal democracy.
There are few examples of internal governance systems in which media hold themselves accountable and monitor their own internal standards. Common problems of a lack of transparency and conflicts of interest that occasionally arise because of political or corporate interests of directors or owners are not addressed in general.
The onset of the recent financial crisis has not helped to create a climate for improving standards whether in the newsroom or in management of media.
The economic difficulties of 2008 have been a major setback to the media market and no recovery has followed. Managements focus on austerity and defensive strategies. As a result, staff numbers and newsroom resources have been cut every year. Managements make ethical compromises when it comes to attracting an advertiser or a powerful political supporters.
In a fragile economic situation, no one wants to offend a major advertiser of commercial sponsor. Risk-avoidance has become a major sentiment across the industry. Many media managers look for new strategies, putting an emphasis on new products that are less resource-demanding than quality journalism – services before public-interest content; life-style and infotainment rather than social issues; human interest before facts; and stridency over accuracy. In all, the media culture is dominated by low-risk, easy editorial options at the expense of any journalism that carries with it any risk of negative political or commercial impact.
Editors with previous strong word on issues, such as the wall between editorial content and advertising, have been weakened in conflicts with sales teams.
‘Special’ advertising deals dominate the commercial battlefield between managements and editors ever since the onset of the crises.
The loss of job security and salary cuts led something else, too – journalists claim (see survey above) that 23 percent of other journalists regularly, and 36 percent occasionally, accept hidden rewards. (Another telling number is that 36 percent refused to answer this question, an outstandingly high number compared to other questions).
Political actors have taken advantage of the economic vulnerability of media. New media regulations have heightened the stakes. Clientelism in distributing state advertising has grown, increasingly in commercial advertising under political influence. A narrow circle of media owners with powerful political friends flourish by taking advantage of this.
Thus, political pressure comes in the form of economic pressure and through middlemen – often advertising agencies playing the role of intermediary. ‘When you have to reach out for state advertising month by month, you cannot pretend you’re independent’, said a media manager quoted in a report of media policy NGO Mérték.
The interplay between political and economic power structures is becoming more complex, and political leanings provide a competitive advantage. They are a key tool in the media survival kit.
There has been much consolidation of media market in the past 5-6 years, and most of it has been politically driven. There is less transparency in ownership. Straw men of oligarchs, owners hiding behind offshore companies, and unlikely investors are more prevalent than ever.
These challenges provoked turbulence and changes – innovation, new formats and initiatives among fragile economic conditions in some cases, being entrapped in the web of clientilistic relations in many others.
The State sets the standard for self-regulation
All of this provides a difficult background for developing media self-regulation, although the issue has been controversial and has been a major topic of discussion within the industry over recent years.
Some major steps have been taken to introduce effective self-regulation. A controversial new media and telecommunications law led to the creation of some industry-based initiatives that are supposed to be leading the way towards effective structures for self-regulation, but there is little evidence that a coherent, credible and effective system of media self-regulation is yet in place.
The landscape of media industry interest groups has been fragmented in the past decades. The incumbent journalism association of the communist era, MÚOSZ, remained the biggest in terms of individual membership numbers but it has been a passive player and caught up with internal power games.
It has been unable to attract many journalists who started their careers after the political changes, and its membership profile is dominated by journalists who are mostly retired.
The association has an ethics committee, but it has a low profile and the number of complaints cases they receive is very limited. Formally, there is a journalists’ union, but it does not figure in these debates.
There is a separate industry association of publishers for every platform: print, commercial television, online, local radios, and local television. The Print Publishers’ Association (MLE) and the Association of Content Providers (the body for the online platform called MTE) also participate in the so-called co-regulation system which was established in the wake of new media regulations and the creation of the National Media and Infocommunications Authority.
The Authority signed co-regulatory agreements with some media associations, introducing an additional level of regulation. This co-regulatory mechanism has a limited legal scope (e.g. protection of minors, minorities) and is practically unknown to the public, resulting in only a handful of cases in the range of the first three years of its operation. At the same time, the MTE introduced its own self-regulatory system, but that has largely become defunct since the co-regulatory agreement.
Public media in the past year has pulled out of all forms of discussion on self-regulation. Separate public media channels have been rounded up in a state media power-house in 2010 and guidelines for public media production have been created as part of the new media regulations. Even so it remains ineffective and public media have made no effort to create a transparent system of dealing with audience’s complaints.
The idea of a platform-neutral, industry-wide self-regulation first arose in 2007. It prompted lively discussions over a number of years on the need for a coalition of every stakeholder, including journalists, publishers, managers, and media owners. But it stalled in the wake of economic crisis and the government-inspired new media regulations. Today publishers and owners are extremely nervous about moving forward on this track.
Still, some journalists remain committed to the project and talks among major stakeholders renewed after a restrictive new media law package had been adopted in 2010. As a breakthrough, Editors’ Forum has been launched in 2012 by editor-in-chiefs of leading media outlets, representing all kinds of media.
The founders adopted and published ethical guidelines (to right) in each member’s publications and informed their audience about the rules they are committed to in their work. In its first two years Editors’ Forum focused on recruiting members, building capacity and promoting self-regulation through an industry-wide agreement.
A series of conferences and workshops have dealt with issues such as journalism education, state regulation versus self-regulation, defamation in media cases, the access to public information, the shrinking divide between advertising and editorial content, gender issues in the media, reporting on minorities, handling of online comments, police reporting, new technologies’ ethical aspects, ownership transparency, and many others.
Industry roundtable talks regarding self-regulation have continued and the self-regulatory complaints procedure has been elaborated. The Editors’ Forum also handled occasional complaints.
The members of the Editors’ Forum consider that a national self-regulatory association could rebuild public confidence in Hungarian media and plans to launch an effective complaints procedure in 2015, with the help of funding by the EEA Norway Grants. Until then, talks to get as many industry associations and media outlets on board of self-regulation continue to create a coalition of newsrooms, managements and owners to rebuild public trust in media.
This is a brave project, but if it works it could signal a fresh start for media self-regulation in Hungary and would be welcome relief for the country’s beleaguered media community.
Manifesto of Editors’ Forum
The founders of the forum agree that it is the common interest of the journalistic profession and the public to agree on general values that are widely shared regardless the respective outlets’ platform, genre, target audience, extent, ideology or style. These values shall be known by the public and be a basis of accountability of the media.
As a result of a long process, the established ethical guidelines represent the external and internal criteria of conscientious journalism, such as impartiality, accuracy, the rules of gathering and presenting information, prohibition of conflict of interest and the transparent divide between editorial content and advertisement.
As the introduction of the guidelines puts it, “We declare that the most important tasks of the media are the following: the dissemination of information; to provide the facts that are necessary for informed choices as a voter, a citizen, a consumer or a parent; the promotion of free expression and the encouragement of a diversity of opinions; entertainment; and thereby the strengthening of society’s self-reflection.”
That is why we, the founders of the Editors’ Forum like our trade and try to preserve it as described above. However, this mission can only be achieved if the media holds an appropriate level of social trust. Recent years’ events – the fast changes of the economic, legal and technological environment – have not benefitted the enforcement of ethical standards. That is why it is so important to make a stand for the values of our profession now. The Editors’ Forum tries to increase this public confidence by declaring that the members of the association are working first and foremost for the public and by doing so what are the main values and rules they follow.
The editors joining the Forum publish the ethical guidelines and from now on it has to be available in their imprint. They agree to handle the complaints regarding the breach of these guidelines in a transparent way and they will share these experiences with each other and their audience on a regular basis. The ethical guidelines shall be annually revised and re-confirmed.
The Editors’ Forum declared its goals, including the creation of an effective self-regulation. The declared aims of the association are:
- to create a platform for the editors to discuss ethical issues
- to promote media ethics in the higher education of journalism
- to write case studies and special guidelines, to analyse Hungarian and international ethical cases
- to promote ethical journalism, to increase the social trust of the profession
- to prepare the introduction of an industry-wide self-regulatory mechanism
- to organise trainings and platforms of consultancy for journalists
- to become a voice of the editors’ community towards the audience, the regulators, the publishers, the academia and other stakeholders.