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Why we're launching openMedia

Forget fake news. Money can distort media far more disturbingly – through advertorials, and through buying silence. Here’s what we’re doing about it.

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Man reading a newspaper, May 21, 2012. Image by Flickr/Frank Knaack

We all think we know what ‘fake news’ is. But whether or not you support or loathe Donald Trump, voted for or against Brexit, and who you’re friends with on Facebook is, of course, highly likely to shape your perception. In less than 18 months, the term has been so over-used and abused it has been stripped of all meaning:

When no news is news, sponsored by HSBC 

But back 2015, before ‘fake news’ was a thing, a very real story broke openDemocracy’s website. Peter Oborne’s explosive resignation from the Daily Telegraph, alleging the paper had suppressed investigations into HSBC, a major advertiser with the Telegraph, made global headlines. 

Oborne, one of the UK’s best known conservative political commentators, also revealed that this type of editorial ‘protection’ extended to a number of the Telegraph’s other major advertising clients, including supermarket giant Tesco. Jay Rosen at NYU called it “one of the most important things a journalist has written about journalism lately”, and the revelations prompted a number of journalists working at other media outlets to come to us with similar tales of editorial interference – or ‘enhancement’, of which more below.  

What happened next? We know the story had an internal impact at the Telegraph, even as they issued denials. Internal sources have confirmed that some Telegraph executives were less willing to spike stories unfavourable to advertisers in the wake of the scandal, and the paper publicly committed to new guidelines for employees to reinforce the independence of editorial from advertising.

Buzzfeed came under fire and was forced to clarify its policy after allegations it had deleted two articles unfavourable to advertisers. And more allegations came to light from other journalists, which prompted others to investigate the Telegraph’s involvement with a number of major advertisers. Meanwhile the Guardian revealed that HSBC had, apparently, tried to apply similar pressure on them to halt an investigation that was deeply damaging to the bank.

We also know that, effectively, this is where the ‘impact’ ended. And that fairly quickly, things were back to business as usual.

Our dirty little secrets

The problem of vested interests influencing reporting – deciding what gets reported and how – is age old. It has been journalism’s dirty little secret for a long time. But with the collapse of traditional media revenue models, the pressure to bow to advertisers and corporate owners has increased dramatically in recent years.

This toxic power dynamic can hinder investigations of banks, big pharma, agribusiness, fossil fuel giants, energy companies and many more.

  1. See Crina Boros’s report today on how large parts of the Romanian media were bought over the controversial Rosia Montana mine.
  2. See our Climate Unspun project analysing how fossil fuel companies spent big on spin and PR during the Paris climate summit.
  3. See Lucy Kellaway’s hilarious riposte to an interfering PR executive in the FT.

That said, relatively few journalists are willing to speak publicly about what happens behind the scenes. For many, the professional consequences are too daunting.

And then there’s the softer side of all of this: the growth of sponsored content or ‘native advertising’, which can be hard to distinguish from other news content. These marketing techniques are favoured by a range of industries, including pharmaceuticals, energy, health & beauty and food. Even when you think something might have been published to promote a product or service, it is often hard to verify. 

In much the same way, it’s rare for journalists to declare who paid for their press trips. Many reporters also now play the dual role of producing sponsored content and regular news content for news outlets, further blurring the lines between advertising / promotion and journalism.

Across the world, a cadre of watchdogs and NGOs are doing excellent work highlighting threats to journalists’ safety and challenging laws that curtail press freedom. However, there is not the same concerted, ongoing spotlight on the extent and effects of commercial influence over the media – despite its grave consequences for press freedom. 

Introducing openMedia 

All of this is why we have launched openMedia: a project to investigate and expose commercial interference in editorial decisions across 47 countries in Europe, and with ambitions to expand beyond this continent in due course. We dreamed this project up before Trump, Brexit and the fake-news mania of the last 18 months. But events have only made the need more pressing.

The openMedia project team – myself, James Cusick and Crina Boros, plus our project partners Index on Censorship, King’s College London, the European Federation of Journalists – are committed to investigating commercial bias and censorship in media. We will expose abuses of power that go under-reported, and bring to light instances where the lines between sponsored or paid-for content have been blurred with newsgathering and journalism.

To be clear, this isn’t just about exposing bad journalism or media outlets ‘compromised’ by their financial interests – or indeed survival instincts. If you ask many journalists which stories they are most proud of, it will be one where a positive change resulted. We want to inspire and energise the many reporters who know which stories are in the public interest, and empower them to report freely and accurately. And we want to encourage the kind of whistle-blowing that would lead to a freer, better resourced press.

We won’t stop there, either. Our partners at King’s College London will also develop digital tools aimed at helping readers make better-informed choices about their news sources, and empowering journalists to advocate for transparency at their news organisations. And we will use our findings to campaign for greater media industry transparency and press freedom.

But to do all of that, we need help from as many working journalists as we can. openMedia is conducting a confidential and anonymous survey of journalists across Europe, asking about working practices and their own experiences of financial pressure inside newsrooms. 

The responses so far indicate that pharmaceutical businesses, construction firms, IT companies and energy giants exert high influence on what news about them does and does not get reported. Some respondents have talked about self-censorship or even to being asked to not go after a substantial advertising partner. In many countries reporters have indicated that political and business interests, often intertwined, impact on what does not get published.   

We are going public with our project asking today for as many journalists as possible to take our survey and tell us what they know – anonymously if they wish. We can't blow a lid on what's happening across the industry, and advocate for better press freedom and more financial independence for media, without evidence of what's going on – and where.

Most importantly, whatever you have to tell us, we will strictly protect your identity and your information. Journalists from across Europe are speaking to us already because they trust us – and they know we will not do anything to imperil their jobs or their safety. For example, our partners at King’s College London can use their media monitoring software to factcheck and prove what you pass on to us confidentially, without employers or anyone else ever knowing you have shared this information.

More information below – alternatively you can share information and documents with us directly here

Please share this widely, and particularly with any journalists you know. Thank you.

About the author

Mary Fitzgerald is Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy. Before joining oD she worked for Avaaz, the global campaigning organisation, and is a former Senior Editor of Prospect Magazine. She has written for the Guardian, Observer, New Statesman and others. Follow her on Twitter: @maryftz


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