Ukraine: Paid journalism – fooling the people for political favours
By Lesia Ganzha and Oleksii Pogorelov
The number of editorial articles paid for by advertisers has been growing over the last several years in Ukrainian media. Many analysts and experts identify paid journalism as a major problem, undermining transparency, weakening public trust in journalism and compromising the hopes for a more democratic and open information landscape.
In this study, we analyse the results of monitoring, the economic situation and cause-and-effect relationships to determine what is behind the visible reality of paid journalism in Ukrainian media. We have tried to find a solution, not just to ensure the materials paid for by customers/advertisers are placed in compliance with the law, but that media maintain ethical standards to ensure readers can distinguish such paid material from genuinely independent editorial content. In particular, the aim is to stop fooling the readers.
One major concern is how paid journalism has an impact on the advertising market as well as how it affects the readers’ perceptions of journalism. These issues have been tackled by some of the NGOs that monitor the placement of paid content in the media, including the Ukrainian Reform Education Center, NGO Telekritika, and the Academy of Ukrainian Press.
The criteria by which they define paid materials are almost identical (see the list below), however these criteria alone are insufficient, and qualified experts are brought in to help.
Otar Dovzhenko from NGO Telekritika, which monitors daily news on national television, says that intuition is the most important tool for recognising paid content. “Knowing the context and history, you can select the articles that are somewhat wrong,” he says, “and then analyse who benefits from them”.
Of course, most monitors are not just focused on paid journalism, but editorial standards in general. He adds that “in order to understand the situation with such materials at a certain point, you need to see all the results, to compare them, for example, with those of the past year, and to communicate with insiders… Although usually … paid journalism is quite typical, and there is no need to prove anything”.
However, Professor Valery Ivanov, President of the Academy of Ukrainian Press, casts doubt on this logic. He says identifying paid content and separating it from genuine editorial work is not easy. Most major television networks in Ukraine, for example, require news stories to include at least two points of view. Yet paid articles can appear standards-compliant by presenting multiple arguments but clearly showing a bias in favour of the desired one.
Similarly, regular content may appear to be paid by seeming to only show one point of view. “In a time of serious decline in advertising and almost total overload of journalists,” he believes, “in addition to their often not-so-high competence, we get low quality editorial content in a lot of media.”
Given the relative constancy of the composition of monitoring experts, this study considers the relative data of changes and trends highlighted by these researchers. The key trends in the distribution of paid materials by regional print and online media were described by Svetlana Eremenko, head of the monitoring project of the Ukrainian Reform Education Center (UREC). UREC experts analyze about 1000 materials monthly: 600-700 printed and about 300 online publications. Only socially important publications are evaluated; materials on other topics such as history, culture and sports are not considered.
She notes that “regional media misinform the readers by placing a large number of editorial materials with signs of political and commercial content (paid journalism). Every fifth material includes the signs that the publication was paid for by the customer. And before the parliamentary elections in 2012 this was true of about one in three materials”.
As for the media that are more likely to violate the standards, Eremenko notes that “above all (from 30 to 60 percent), paid for materials are published by municipal newspapers, indicating their dependence on the authorities.
Often there is a violation of the Journalist Code of Ethics – only 30 percent of journalists are familiar with the Code. The compliance score for journalistic standards is low: it ranges from 3.43 to 4.09 out of a possible six. The journalists best comply with the standards of ‘reliability’, ‘accuracy’, ‘promptness’. But they fail on issues such as ‘balance’, ‘separating facts from comments’ and ‘completeness of the facts’.
This situation in the regional media remained more or less stable until November 2013, with the exception of the election campaign of 2012.
Paid journalism and the Ukrainian revolution
“Since then, however, our group of experts has been observing interesting new trends,” says Eremenko. “At first, as if by “magic” (and in fact under the influence of authorities) the regional media started to place paid articles about the signing of the Association Agreement with the European Union. Many regional paid articles were aimed at misinforming citizens about the Euromaidans protests. In January-February 2014, during the world-shaking protests, paid articles in the regional media decreased by approximately one third compared with December.”
By April 2014, in the lead-up to the country’s presidential elections, the prevalence of paid materials in the regions had increased once again, with 19.6 percent of materials showing signs of bias. “It is very sad,” says Eremenko, “that, at a time when the brutal undeclared war of Russia against Ukraine continues in the East, with terrorists committing atrocities, taking hostages and killing civilians, and a continued Russian propaganda offensive, some regional media still publish paid materials, demonstrating complete blindness to reality, and glossing over tragic events by giving their readers a picture of a carefree life”.
She makes some conclusions about the phenomenon of regional paid materials and highlights the following trends:
- Increasing manipulation of media and a large number of paid editorial journalism that violates basic standard of journalists, objectivity and balance.
- Journalists pay less attention to their social responsibility. Being accustomed to working under conditions of strict control and dependence on local authorities, regional media and journalists find it difficult to adapt to the democratic working principles.
- Editorial policies and management practices of regional media practically are not changed despite the country’s democratic aspirations. During elections, for the most part, media earned money promoting candidates and continue to misinform their readers.
- During the tragic events at Maidan, the most objective coverage of events as well as diverse and balanced information was provided by journalists in Lviv, where many publications made Maidan a top theme. In contrast, some media in Crimea, Kharkov and Donetsk launched anti-Ukrainian and anti-Maidan campaigns. In the hot months of confrontation, when many journalists risked their lives in reporting events, others spread panic, called for violence, stirred up hatred and aggression, and spoke disparagingly of the protesters.
Eremenko also reports progressive tendencies: for the first time during the 30 months of monitoring, for example, in the newspaper Vinnicchina, where previously experts noted up to 50 percent paid for journalism, there were no paid materials.
If war, propaganda and internal corruption were not enough to inspire a crisis, the situation is further aggravated, according to UREC experts, by the low literacy level of journalists.
The economic realities of paid journalism
In order to analyse the causes and nature of paid journalism we talked to leading experts and observers of the Ukrainian market.
Tatiana Efimenko, Director-General of Ukraine’s largest publishing house Ukrainian Media Holding (UMH) notes that “there are customers who ask not to mark promotional material in any way. They think that it will help to attract more attention from buyers.”
She sees this as a huge risk for publishers and says most don’t do it. “After all, there are different ways to mark the advertising material: using ‘advertising’ plates, highlighting certain headings as promotional, publishing the materials as non-editorial etc”.
Andrey Vdovichenko, Director-General of PH Burda Ukraine agrees: “Advertisers believe this form of advertising is more interesting to the reader.”And Yaroslav Sukhomlyn, publisher of Chernigov Media Group, the region’s largest publishing house, puts emphasis on the importance of ethics in dealing with the problem.
He says that they are routinely saying no to advertisers looking for paid journalism without any marking. “This happens regularly, almost every week,” he says. Even where the financial offer is tempting, they say no. “Our reputation is too valuable”.
The prevalence of paid journalism is chiefly due to the dire economic situation faced by media, according to Professor Valery Ivanov, who notes that “it all started a long time ago, back in the late 1990s. Then paid materials not marked as advertising were an additional income for the media and journalists – they were paid for in cash, and these revenues were not subject to tax.”
By the early 2000s, such publishing was paid for officially, the same as common advertising and was taxable. However, by that time, advertisers were not prepared to give it up and many recognised how competitors that continued to use this system turned out to be a success.
A second reason for the continued use of paid journalism says Ivanov is the excessive number of media in relation to the size of the country’s population: “We have too many media and advertising is not enough for such a number of media outlets. With a population of approximately 45.59 million people, more than four and half thousand print media are published in Ukraine.”
The country also suffers from a small advertising market. In Poland, with a population of 38.5 million is about 20 percent less than in Ukraine, but the market of television advertising is much greater. By the end of 2012 it was third in the region after Russia and Turkey and worth around 2.07 billion dollars, compared with that of Ukraine of only 483 million dollars, more than 4 times less.
He says native advertising is actively developing around the world. “However, we have this kind of advertising “embedded” in the content of traditional media, and in the world it is mainly a vector of development for digital media. But if you don’t focus on the medium, the trends are very similar. Earlier, in my opinion, the main difference was that we did not pay taxes on these revenues. Now, in my opinion, there is no difference”.
On the business side media expert Sergey Syrovatka highlights the importance of the public relations industry to the television business. He says: “It is important to distinguish between companies’ attempts to promote disguised information about themselves, and information warfare, which is accompanied by mass publishing of compromised information in the media for cash.”
Due to the economic crisis, he says, the demand for advertising, including the hidden advertising fell by 50-60 percent. “At the same time there is a renewed demand for paid journalism generated by the information war accompanying the corporate and political conflicts,” he says.
He says society after Yanukovych is more open and such conflicts are probably a necessary evil in this transitional period. Nevertheless, the media economy is difficult and complicated by regional and political issues.
- Firstly, there is a small volume of media market and advertising, on average, covers only about 50 percent of media costs. The rest is subsidised by the owners of media groups.
- Second, large transnational companies can save on advertising costs in Ukraine where, in relative terms, the cost is several times lower than in Poland and Russia.
- Third, he says, the allocation of advertising budgets for Ukraine suffers because regional offices are often located in Moscow, and the European offices, not to mention the headquarters, are hard to reach.
- Fourth, he says new ideas to ban advertising of certain categories of goods are constantly emerging which leads to instability in the advertising market and forcing advertisers to find ways to circumvent the ban. This can be the cause of declining revenues of the media which leads to an increase in dependence on a limited number of individuals/companies and, inevitably, to a lowering of professional standards including with regard to advertising.
- Fifth, across Ukraine, he points to a systematic dependence of the media on the owners and other sponsors, the use of media as a lever of influence/pressure to reach the political and business objectives”.
Despite this there is a mood of change. Syrovatka notes that “after the Maidan the amount of paid journalism declined.” A combination of economic crisis and more responsible attitudes in media have had an impact, he says.
Yaroslav Sukhomlyn says that “more than a half of paid materials are of a political nature. Therefore, their number varies from election to election”. However, the heads of major publishing houses disagree. Tatiana Efimenko argues that “the amount of advertorial is growing. And the number of customers who are asking about placing “unmarked” materials neither grows, nor reduces”. Andrey Vdovichenko confirms that “in recent years (2010-2013) there was a strong growth in the placement of advertising materials”.
But are these materials “clear” advertorial or paid–for editorial, that is, articles paid for by a customer, and not marked as such? And how do publishers fight corruption among journalists, when some journalists are bribed to prepare and publish materials paid for by the customers.
Syrovatka says: “Editorial materials, the publication of which is officially paid for through the accounting department, prevail. And the publication of materials not marked as advertising, of course, is paid for in cash”.
Sukhomlyn responds: “Our journalists cannot publish anything for a bribe. All negotiations in such cases are held solely by a commercial service and we visually distinguish all materials. Payment is made in the accounting department as it is for the promotional material. A journalist’s work is always paid for based on the same principle, no matter what kind of material is being prepared. After all, journalist’s work inherently must be of a high quality.”
However, he agrees that the municipal media often publish such materials, and it is possible to make an agreement with the journalists. “In these publications, I see this editorial content without any marks,” he says. “I think there are two reasons for that: the municipal newspapers don’t have an owner, who would track the cash flows and it can be cheaper to make an agreement with the journalist (editor)”.
Efimenko says that marking the different sort of content is crucial. She says: “If a journalist takes a bribe, he would never admit doing so. And the marking of content as advertising is not a strict requirement. There must be a visually clear separation of editorial content from advertising”.
Ethical standards and the role of public censure
As in other countries, the compliance with ethical standards is relevant for Ukraine. The Journalistic Ethics Commission at our request and for this report examined the complaints received in 2013-2014 and reported the following:
“The number of complaints received by the Commission in 2013-2014 (30 complaints) does not allow a full analysis. However, we can identify some of the key trends.
- Complaints from organisations claiming harassment by the media. They complain that journalists consciously and deliberately make efforts to tarnish the reputation of the organisation.
- Complaints from individuals about the infringement of individual honour and dignity. A number of individuals make charges of improper behaviour of journalists in gathering information (recording with a hidden camera, aggressiveness) and in its presentation (intentional misrepresentation, value judgments).
- In 2014, complaints over hostile and prejudiced language in journalism have become more frequent. There are cases where journalists clearly show their bias in relation to the political conflict; they use unfounded accusations against politicians or colleagues; and they use hostile language towards supporters of certain political forces.
The Head of the Journalistic Ethics Commission, Vladimir Mostovoy, stressed that “the Commission does not receive complaints about paid journalism. It is very difficult to establish that a journalist received the payment for the publication of a certain material”.
There is a large variation over how outlets or individuals found to be breaching the Code of Ethics react to the remarks and conclusions of the Commission. “Some of the ‘offenders’ publish Commission’s decisions. Others publish the decision, and then publish their own commentary and interpretation, which can be much more verbose than the decision itself. But mostly there is no visible reaction.
The Commission expects that our decisions gradually influence and change the relationship of the journalists and the media, thereby increasing the quality of their work. And in many cases this is the case”.
As an experienced editor and co-owner of one of the oldest analytical papers in Ukraine, Zerkalo Nedeli, Vladimir Mostovoy commenting on the driving forces behind paid materials, said: “There is a choice between to take money and to pay journalists for their daily work. Or not to take money and just to close the newspaper”.
Searching for solutions: Some expert opinions
We asked our experts to propose effective tools to reduce the incidence of the practice across all media.
“I do not think that there is no freedom of speech in Ukraine,” said Sergey Syrovatka. “Moreover, the range of views represented in the leading Ukrainian media is now wider and the discussions are more acute than in the media of the so-called old democracies. The risks for free speech are in the financial dependence of the media on donations from the owners of media holdings.
He says the only answer to the problem is to improve the financial condition of media, and ensure the growth of the media market. But even when conditions will improve the problem may still exist. “The supply on the paid journalism market exists not only because of the low income, but also because of greed”, he said.
Valery Ivanov says the solution is to be found by fighting on two fronts. “Firstly, by fighting against the violation of tax law. Here, in my opinion, the state should work to challenge when income is not declared. And, secondly, by insisting that media play their social role and show social responsibility.”
To do that, of course, media have to effectively self-regulate: to investigate and expose violations, have them dealt with by the Journalistic Ethics Commission and by doing so eliminate the practices.
“However, the most important thing in this work,” he says “is to determine what exactly are we monitoring and what are we fighting against? What material is clearly paid for, how to find it and how to influence the situation so that this practice is discontinued”.
For his part Yaroslav Sukhomlyn pleads for financial independence for media: “Newspapers should have greater independence. But this can only be achieved through the general recovery of the market. No laws will help here. Ethics is important, but I believe more in the economic influence”.
Tatiana Efimenko agrees: “The improvement of the economic situation in the country, the transition of the Ukrainian economy to a 100 percent legal sector, the increase in the purchasing power of the population – all can help in the fight against paid journalism. And, of course, the cancellation of the stupid bans on advertising, for example, of pharmaceuticals so that the publishers would stop looking for ‘loopholes’ and exist cost-effectively”.
Andrey Vdovichenko sees a role for education and training. He said: “The clarity of wording in the Law on Advertising would help. At the moment it allows the editors and advertisers to use any language, which is convenient for the consumer. But educational work with the advertisers aimed at increasing the confidence in the work of the editorial staff will help as will work to improve the professionalism of editors.”
Finally Svetlana Eremenko is realistic and says that it is impossible to speak of one step or decision that will help to eliminate paid journalism.
“A comprehensive solution is needed,” she said. “And it is necessary to start with the development of public information policies and programmes to protect the information environment. As we see it private media are more concerned about quality of content, and better comply with the Journalist Code of Ethics and make more efforts to maintain their credibility in the eyes of the reader. It is necessary to promote the experience of such publications as widely as possible.”
She also calls for the denationalisation of the media as soon as possible. “Today in Ukraine there are 667 state and municipal publications,” she said. “The maintenance of this system which annually costs millions allocated from different budgets. This system hinders development of the media market.
“In addition, it is necessary to improve the professionalism of journalists, which for the past 10-15 years has decreased dramatically.” she adds. “It is important to start with the editors and owners, forming their attitude towards the professionalism of journalists as a pledge of credibility and market value of the publication.
“Media managers need to be trained, as some of them are not familiar both with ethics and with standards. And journalists do not know the requirements of their ethics and the Law on Advertising that paid-for journalism should be marked as advertisement or advertorial.”
The final call for a debate on the need for journalists to show responsibility to the community, to enhance the prestige of their work journalists and the profession, is something on which everyone might agree. It certainly is needed to shape the consciousness of the new generation of journalists now preparing to come into the profession at a time of historical change and challenge. They will make a good start if they target the elimination of the continuing corruption caused by paid-for journalism.