Egypt: Zig-zag politics and the scourge of paid-for journalism

By Tarek Atia and Mohamed Abdel-Rahman

Egyptian media have suffered over the years from political pressure and legal restrictions, but some of its worst problems are self-inflicted. The scourge of paid journalism and an excessive focus on commercial and political objectives have often underpinned a culture of unethical journalism characterised by corrupt practices of employment, advertising disguised as news, and the absence of transparency.

Its most obvious output, advertorials — that is, advertising or special interest information posing as journalism — are frequent, and often hard to detect. But they only represent a window into the myriad aspects of this negative phenomenon.

This report examines the threats posed by

  • Corrupt systems of payment for journalism and employment of people in journalism
  • Mixing of advertising and journalism without clear distinctions between the two
  • Enterprise-level systems of marketing that encourage commercial promotion and sponsorship at the expense of journalism
  • Corruption in the allocation of state advertising, allocation of technical resources to media and allocation of state support or subsidies
  • Levels of transparency and monitoring of problems
  • Development of new automatic systems of advertising in the digital age that can undermine editorial identity and strengthen commercial and advertising power in newsrooms.

The report, based upon interviews with journalists and experts, draws upon local knowledge and provides examples of corruption problems. It examines whether these problems are properly acknowledged within journalism and what solutions, if any, are found to deal with them.

Finally, the report provides a summary of trends in journalism, highlights efforts to try to maintain good standards of editorial governance and makes recommendations on some appropriate follow-up actions needed to raise internal discussion in media on how to improve transparency and to strengthen public trust.

The zig-zag line that causes confusion in the news

Media students at Egyptian universities – like their colleagues around the world – are taught that there is a clear dividing line between editorial and advertising in any media operation. Once these students graduate, however, and start their first jobs in some of the country’s many print, online or television outlets, the reality of how media operates is not so clear-cut or rosy.

The “zig-zag” line is one of the confusing things that those who end up working in a newspaper might come across. As a symbol of the relationship between advertising and editorial, the “zig-zag” line is a small example that encapsulates how an under-regulated system often spawns confusion – to both the consumers of media and those producing it.

As a design element, the black “zig-zag” line in newspapers is meant to (subtly) indicate that the content below it – whether an article, or photos and headlines — is advertising or sponsored material. In reality, readers are encouraged to think they are just another article, or editorial content. They are sometimes crafted in the same font and style of the paper’s regular content.

Of course, advertisers or sponsors desire this kind of content because it gives them legitimacy and credibility, and looks much more serious than “we paid the newspaper to run our ad.” It also reinforces the real advertising (which is often either on the same page or nearby) that directly markets the same product, service or new development written about “editorially” within the “zig-zag” lines. But how clear are those lines – to readers and to the media professionals themselves? And are media as transparent as they can be, with both their audiences and their staff about how they deal with official policy is towards the contentious divide between the editorial and advertising sides of the media business in Egypt?

The blurring of the lines between editorial content and commercial content is a global phenomenon and in Egypt, like everywhere else, advertising sales executives offering gray-area editorial opportunities to their clients know that journalists working in newsrooms can be asked to write up content to suit the advertiser’s needs. Journalists who accept this kind of work often get salary bonuses and end up making more money than their colleagues, creating inequality between editorial pay scales and office resentments that are potentially harmful to healthy newsroom relations.

Many media encourage editorial and advertising to coordinate their efforts — by sharing editorial calendars, for instance, so that sales staff can attract advertisers to special sections or seasonal coverage — without compromising editorial credibility, or creating a “zig-zag” line.

In Egypt, media professionals from across platforms agree that greater discussion is needed on the challenge that this poses to the ethics of journalism and the wider media business. Many are concerned that if nothing serious is done about the problem, everybody in the process will lose.

For advertising sales staff, securing a piece of valuable editorial space will often be the decisive factor in reaching a deal on a contract to sell advertising.

But copywriting for the advertising department is not the only way that journalists and editorial managers end up getting paid for, or being involved in, producing paid-for content.

Another is when journalists themselves seek out advertising — and receive a commission for it. This happens despite the fact that according to the current semi-official code of ethics practiced by the Egyptian media community, it is illegal for anyone other than a designated sales representative or advertising manager to receive payment, or any sort of compensation, in exchange for advertising content.

Media either turn a blind eye to this practice, or in some cases even actively encourage editorial staff to seek out advertising opportunities as a way of enhancing their incomes. This also has negative effects on newsroom culture.

Even though it is prohibited, these violations are rarely pursued by the two official or semi-official bodies charged with acting as watchdogs: the Supreme Press Council and the Press Syndicate. Both these bodies have been overwhelmed by the instability of recent years, as a result of a turbulent political environment that has stalled media reform and key legislative transformation of the media landscape. During this period supervision of media and its ethical performance has been weakened. As a result, paid journalism in Egypt has become more hidden, but at the same time, shockingly prevalent.

According to veteran editors who have worked for both the public sector and private media, journalists and editorial managers frequently receive money or favors from sources – whether government agencies, businesses, individuals, or any other entities — in order to produce favorable content about them.

“This is basically advertising masking as editorial in the form of investigative reports, news reports, or any other material that may be printed in the paper, online, or broadcast on radio or television,” says a former newspaper editor in chief.

In many cases, consumers of the content are completely unaware that the journalist or media entity has received some sort of remuneration – other than his salary as a journalist — in exchange for the coverage. Increasing competition and a more crowded media market has only made the problems of a lack of transparency more acute.

The Code of Ethics stipulates that journalists’ work be objective, independent, and in the public interest, and not for some special interest. And yet, says the former editor in chief, the prevalence of such deceptive practices requires urgent and serious investigation to combat this phenomenon, at the individual, institutional, and national level. “No less than the credibility of the media is at stake,” he says.

Young journalists entering the business quickly learn that the framework of paid journalism depends – first and foremost — on where the person receiving the payment sits in the editorial hierarchy. Is he or she capable of getting a “paid” story published or broadcast without being hassled or facing unwanted inquiries from bosses, underlings or colleagues? In this newsroom climate, unethical behaviour leads to colleagues looking the other way since they may need to bend the rules themselves in support of a special interest with which they are connected. Pretty soon the practice just becomes a settled practice in the workplace.

Compensation for the journalists in these cases varies. It can be through direct cash payment, or what many in the media call “envelope journalism”. Other methods include various forms of non-cash payments – favors, employment opportunities for a relative or spouse, goods and services or other gifts.

The value of the cash payments depends on the amount of editorial space on offer and on the status of the media concerned. Public figures who want to protect their image or portray themselves in a certain way often have several writers, editors or journalists on their payroll at a select number of media outlets. The standard budget, according to experts, for this kind of paid journalism operation is in the tens of thousands of Egyptian pounds per year. On the lower end of the scale — and much more common – is the public figure or special interest body just looking for any kind of favour from a small-time hack, the sort who might produce coverage that may only cost the rough equivalent of a dinner invitation.

Interestingly enough, this practice is not always pursued as a way to get positive press; sometimes it is to prevent the journalist or media outlet from actually doing their jobs properly. Media observers allege that telecom and real estate business interests have an unspoken agreement with the media to not pursue aggressive investigative stories or consumer interest content in their domains, as a sort of quid pro quo, for granting major advertising.

The predominance of this practice has weakened editorial coverage in some vitally important areas of public interest. Journalists that participate may get a bonanza of gifts and rewards, but the public is sold short. Even government entities encourage this sort of advertorial practice. They may allocate a portion of the annual budget to payments (sometimes in the form of envelopes with cash in them) to be given to media people at press conferences or other events (these payments are often labeled “travel expenses”), or they themselves sponsor sections or content that appears under zig-zag lines.

“Egyptian billboard #1” by David Evers (https:// ic. kr/p/5RNeQh) is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“Egyptian billboard #1” by David Evers (https:// ic. kr/p/5RNeQh) is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Here the tragic irony of the situation becomes acutely clear: the sponsored content is usually written or produced by the reporter covering a particular governmental beat; in this way the reporter, instead of being the paper’s eyes and ears, becomes the mouthpiece of the very entity he or she is supposed to be subjecting to journalistic scrutiny (and will likely be compensated handsomely for it).

It is not a hidden phenomenon. A recent report released by the Unlawful Income Commission noted that 680 journalists working for state-affiliated organisations had done work with advertising departments. A Press Syndicate statement in June 2014 indicated that these claims would be investigated by the syndicate; as of now, no results of the investigation have been announced, nor any of disciplinary measures taken place. This, a media critic said, may have more to do with internal syndicate politics.

Beyond the grubby business of newsroom bribery a larger form of politics plays a central role in the paid journalism phenomenon and relations between media organisations and government entities, said Alaa Al-Attar, the editor in chief of Al-Ahram Al-Arabi magazine, one of the publications of state-affiliated media giant Al Ahram.

The goal is to carefully orchestrate the coverage of the ministry or other government entity’s performance, he said. Knowing that balanced or straightforward coverage would probably shed a harsh light on the entity’s poor performance, it becomes worthwhile to find editors and reporters who are willing to trade editorial integrity for influence or other gains. The speed of the news cycle and social media’s constant presence, however, has made this sort of relationship increasingly untenable, said Al-Attar.

“Things are changing because the idea of damage control via exerting influence on news production at the big newspapers or television outlets is becoming more and more irrelevant. People will find it out from somewhere else,” he said.

If anything, Al-Attar thinks special pages and sections, supplements, and other clearly labeled sponsored or advertising content represent a better middle ground –as practiced on an institutional level. As long as it is clear they are sponsored, he said, the journalists who put their names on the articles in these sections have publicly proclaimed their loyalty to the buyer – namely the advertiser or the government entity — and have thus transparently and (with the audience’s knowledge) put at risk their credibility.

For the media entities themselves, Al-Attar said getting these kinds of sponsorship deals is good for business, and necessary in tough economic times.

He says that in order to combat the more dangerous practices of individuals secretly practicing paid journalism, a variety of approaches is needed. He says media should not permit a limited number of journalists to monopolise coverage of a particular beat, source, or ministry or government entity. This will too often create too personal a relationship that is vulnerable to corruption. Such relations may result in the journalist abandoning his or her watchdog role.

Shady Eissa, deputy chief editor of private sector Tahrir newspaper, thinks the practice is not as prevalent at private media outlets. For Eissa, the key reason is purely financial: the private papers tend to seek out high calibre reporters and editors, and thus the pay levels at these entities is usually higher than in the public sector, making it less likely for reporters and editors to be bought on the cheap.

Eissa also said many private media have abandoned the idea of having in-house advertising departments, and instead outsource their advertising to media buying agencies. This, he said, has by its very nature reduced the chances of journalists being recruited by the advertising side to write advertorial content.

Abeer Saady, deputy head of the press syndicate and an editor at the state-affiliated Akhbar newspaper, sees the situation in terms of poor business practice. Some private media outlets that sprung up after the January 2011 revolution did so without sound business plans. Many have been shut down by their owners, and thus left many journalists out of work. This has resulted in some journalists “switching sides,” and offering their services to the business community or government entities as media consultants or spokespeople.

These individuals have crossed the zig-zag line, she says, and as such there is no need for hidden envelopes or other methods. Like the specialised pages spoken of by Al-Attar, this type of paid journalism is done completely in the open.

Saady worries that many journalists employed by private media self-censor themselves, when it comes to reporting objectively on the media owners’ other business interests — in this way, their basic salaries become part of the paid journalism system.

Business interests and other groups also start their own media entities to specifically promote themselves, thus making their journalists and editorial managers merely glorified propagandists and their continued employment dependent on the financial success of the business interest.

While some pine for the “good old paid journalism days when entities could simply look for some ‘trusted’ print journalists or editors to ‘buy’, these days the landscape is now much more complex,” says Saady.

“The most important reason for the shrinking share of the bigger state-affiliated papers from the paid advertising pie,” she says, “is that now special interests will pay for an ‘army’ of online representatives to do the same thing, but constantly and on social media.

“It is more immediate and more impactful and more cost-effective to promote themselves, and even attack their competitors in this manner. The traditional media will often then cover these online wars, thus generating even more coverage.”

On the local level, she says political candidates also use paid journalism at smaller, cash-strapped media outlets to spread their messages. Many journalists are not even aware that it is ethically improper to take money or accept favors from a source.

“In fact some see it as a perfectly natural necessity to improve either their incomes or that of the organisation they are working for,” says Saady. It’s a key task for the press syndicate and other associations to convince them otherwise and to restore respect for media ethics.

The changing tide – setting an agenda to eliminate corruption

A healthy discussion has grown in recent years about how to build trust and support ethics to deal with the multiple ills that keep the Egyptian media from achieving its potential. This debate takes place out in the open and involves both the media and the public. Leading voices from both within and outside of the media community have called for greater transparency regarding media ownership and influence, and are trying to build consensus on self-regulatory mechanisms to combat corruption.

Paid journalism, as outlined in this report, has clearly changed form and shape with the changing times, but it remains a thorn in the side of the practice of ethical journalism. Large and small Egyptian media have taken some positive steps including organising in-house workshops and training on ethics and the publication of codes of conduct and dissemination of more stringent internal conflict of interest policies and regulations. A raucous national debate is taking place regarding media practice, and the media community is aware of how pivotal the moment is for the future of their industry and profession.

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In 2013, for example, the Egyptian Editors Association (EEA), a project bringing together editors across media platforms to discuss issues of professional concern, held a seminar on paid journalism that featured – for the first time – an honest and detailed dialogue about many of the forms of paid journalism outlined in this report. If anything, the gathering – well attended at the highest levels of editorial management – made clear that this was a subject worth returning to again and again. The association continues to attract media professionals concerned about negative trends like paid journalism and seeks ways to address these kinds of issues in a comprehensive and effective manner.

The areas where efforts are being made by EEA and other entities and individuals include:

  • Updating codes of ethics and regulatory mechanisms to deal with new realities
  • Examining the various levels of media production workflow, from the editor in chief downwards, for issues that may sound alarm bells
  • Keeping track of the influx of new players (whether owners, editors, or reporters, or even those on citizen journalism or social media)
  • Building awareness of the need for codes of ethics, style guides and other tools to make journalistic work more professional and transparent.
  • Establishing effective monitoring mechanisms across all platforms that would be on the lookout for both recurring and new forms of paid journalism
  • Involving the readers and the audience by establishing entities and personas that defend readers’ right to objective and fair journalism, greater transparency regarding the ownership and financing of media, and a clear distinction between paid-for and proper journalism.

Main image: “Al Tahrir Square – Cairo” by Peter Snelling (https:// ic. kr/p/5nvsoZ) is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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