16th March 2015
By Stefanie Chernow

Untold Stories: Time to Act Over the Corruption That is Killing Ethical Journalism

Untold Stories is the Ethical Journalism Network’s 2015 report into how corruption and conflicts of interest are blighting journalism.


Aidan White

The world of journalism is full of good intentions but the idea of news media as a cornerstone of democracy and ethical values is fast disappearing according to a report released today by the Ethical Journalism Network.

The report, Untold Stories: How Corruption and Conflicts of Interest Stalk the Newsroom, covers 18 countries and exposes how financially-stricken news media are being overwhelmed by political and corporate forces.

The report finds that in countries both rich and poor, there are ‘dark arts’ at work in newsrooms: media managers are doing deals with advertisers to carry paid-for material disguised as honest news; reporters and editors accept bribes and irregular payments; and a culture of dependence on political and corporate friends makes it increasingly difficult to separate journalism from propaganda and impartial reporting from public relations.

This survey concludes that a toxic mix of political and business pressures is leading to a systematic disregard of ethical journalism principles. Although journalists and media insiders know what is going on, they are often reluctant to talk about it openly.

Unless media professionals at all levels face up to the crisis the future of journalism as a public good that speaks truth to power is at risk.

Of course, the newsroom has always been a battleground for influence with predatory owners, politicians and advertisers jostling for control of the news agenda when they can get away with it, but in the past this pressure has been balanced by the added value of a news business committed to ethical journalism and information in the public interest.

Today that balance of power has shifted. Journalism has been weakened in recent years by the turbulence of change inside the industry and the class of strong-willed editors ready to defend their reporters and the independence of newsrooms is in decline.

The EJN says journalism requires new rules on transparency, conflicts of interest and ethical governance to be drafted and implemented across the whole landscape of journalism, both online and offline.

The journalists themselves, with the support of responsible owners, can lead the way by demanding that their ethical values are reinforced, and the report suggests an 8-point agenda for action.

Although the report notes that the major threats come from outside media, with governments, unscrupulous politicians and corporate communicators increasingly shaping the news agenda and taking advantage of newsrooms weakened by cuts and restructuring of the media economy, it also highlights how many wounds are also self-inflicted. It notes that many of today’s media owners do not buy into journalism for commercial reasons, but mostly to promote their own business and political agenda.

The report reveals how journalism is compromised by politicians and owners in countries where media are on the frontline of tough political battles, such as Egypt and Turkey. It highlights how in Ukraine the practice of paid-for journalism is a tool routinely used by politicians at election time. The same continues to be true in India.

In other countries, including Nigeria, Philippines, and Colombia the precarious working environment of news staff provides fertile conditions for corruption and “brown envelopes” or under-the-table cash payments to reporters and editors have become a routine feature of journalistic work.

In a range of countries in the Western Balkans with a shared and painful history, media corruption hinders attempts to break free from the legacy of war, censorship and political control during decades of communist rule.

The struggles facing journalists in settled democracies, such as the United Kingdom and Denmark, are less stark, but no less challenging as news is sensationalised to be clickbait which ultimately erodes away at ethical journalism.

The story everywhere is one of an uphill struggle. Corruption and cynicism inside newsrooms sap the confidence of media staff leading to crumbling levels of commitment to ethics, a lowering of the status of journalistic work and a pervasive lack of transparency over advertising, ownership and corporate and political affiliations.

Government control over lucrative state advertising, which is often allocated to media according to their political bias, remains widespread. At the same time, the elimination in most countries of the invisible wall separating editorial and advertising has created a surge of so-called “native advertising,” hidden advertorials and paid-for journalism.

It was this conflict of interest that plunged the crisis-prone UK press into a new bout of handwringing last month when Peter Oborne, a leading political journalist, quit his job at the Daily Telegraph accusing the management of censoring stories about HSBC bank, a leading advertiser caught up in a tax scandal.

All of this presents journalists, publishers, editors and anyone who values information pluralism with a massive task: to revive commitment to transparency, good governance and ethical journalism. The report concludes with an agenda for change that includes:

  1. A meaningful commitment to transparency inside media and the publication of information related to the political and financial interests of owners, managers, editors and all leading journalists;
  2. The adoption of rules to prohibit undue interference in the work of journalists and media by governments and to establish principles for full disclosure of contacts and transactions between media and state officials;
  3. Agreed standards on the allocation of all forms of public and political advertising and regular public disclosure of payments made for services to all journalists and media;
  4. Creation of genuinely independent and transparent systems for assessing circulation and ratings of media;
  5. Introduction of internal systems for disclosing potential conflicts of interest at all levels – whether in the boardroom or in the newsroom – and to set-up structures for dealing with complaints;
  6. Providing contracts and employment conditions for journalists that meet international labour standards and which give them the right, without fear of retribution, to refuse any form of work that infringes upon their professional codes or their conscience;
  7. Agreement on internal rules and procedures in all media houses to ensure full disclosure of all paid for content and for such materials to be made clearly distinct from editorial and journalistic work;
  8. Launching of urgent debates at national and international level on the need for structures to provide public assistance to encourage the provision of pluralist and ethical journalism without infringing upon editorial independence.

These may help, but above all the message from this report is that people inside the media need to start facing up to the hard truths about what is going wrong inside journalism. Reforms will take time, but nothing will happen unless media leaders have the courage to stop the rot, start speaking openly about the crisis, and come up with fresh solutions to solve it.

Download the report

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Corruption and Conflicts of Interest

EJN Director, Aidan White, is joined by head of Channel 4 News and Current Affairs Dorothy Byrne, The Guardian‘s readers’ editor Chris Elliott, and Zahera Harb from City University to discuss corruption and conflicts of interests in journalism.