Recommendation No. 11 for journalists on how to maintain their professional reputation working in owner-dependent media
In recent years, the influence of the media controlled by the owners of large business and political groups or local politicians in the regions has been increasing in Ukraine. However, the relationship between investors, top management and journalists usually remains unregulated, and content often becomes a tool for manipulation, disinformation or propaganda.
This recommendation is in no way urging or incentivizing journalists to work with “dependent” media, or justifying timeserving and tolerance for paid news, or unlawful influence of media owners on editorial policy.
Instead, it reflects an awareness of the reality, in which the Ukrainian media currently operate, and is designed to help those seeking to stay in the journalistic profession, even while working under difficult conditions in the “dependent” media.
Ukrainian television is considered the most popular source of information by 75% of respondents, polled as part of a study by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation and Razumkov Center’s sociological service at the request of Detector Media, an NGO, conducted in August 2020.
Ukrainian viewers often favor national TV channels that are part of the media groups owned by large business corporations and whose beneficiaries are representatives of oligarchic groups.
According to the study, 26.9% of respondents get their news online, 8.8% of respondents watch local TV, and 5.9% read local websites.
The media dependent on their owners are among the popular media.
As practice shows, the quality of content in the Ukrainian media often depends on the wishes and interest or, conversely, a lack of interest in a particular topic on the part of media investors. Thus, according to the monitoring of privatized regional print media conducted by the Pylyp Orlyk Institute for Democracy with the support of Internews implementing the Media Program in Ukraine, as at the beginning of 2020, most newspapers continued to actively promote the interests of their owners – local politicians or businessmen. “Readers of the reshaped media for the most part get distorted news about the events in their towns and villages, and the journalists show “dutiful” loyalty to local authorities in selecting topics, facts, the ways to present information, language and visualization,” the study authors note.
At the same time, a study by the polling company InMind, conducted at the request of Internews Ukraine in October 2019, shows that only 11% of respondents are able to tell the real news from disinformation, with 68% being able to recognize paid news.
Under such “dependent” conditions, the journalists preparing content for the media have increased responsibility. It becomes extremely important to defend their professional reputations and professional values, being a source of truthful information for their audience. However, this is difficult and not always possible when journalists start working in newsrooms, facing dependence on investors’ interests, and, sometimes, severe internal editorial pressure. We therefore offer guidelines for media professionals on how to keep up their professional reputation, working in the owner-dependent media.
State your position
If working in a dependent media is not a mistake or a coincidence, but a harsh reality of this segment of the media market, or a necessity caused by circumstances, you should first have a clear picture of how long your career here will be. If your plans do not include quitting immediately, and you have a desire to keep up your reputation and profession, you should immediately and squarely communicate it to the employer.
It is often the case that, despite supporting the policy of dependence on the media’s owner, the manager running the media needs to increase this media’s audience (because his/her standing or reward depends on it). To achieve this goal, high-quality professional materials written by motivated and professional journalists are needed.
Therefore, a timely and correct attitude regarding your being ready to do in this position “that and only that as part of professional duties” can help a productive collaboration, saving many annoying situations and troubles in the future. If we are talking about the relationship between a media owner and a manage ragreeing to run the media, it is advisable to discuss in detail the terms of cooperation, including putting them in writing. This will help create clear rules of cooperation and enable you to make substantive claims, should that agreement be breached in the future.
Even at the beginning of your work in a newsroom, you’re not being ready to go to paid-for filmings should be communicated to the management. You should demand that they warn you that a scheduled filming was paid for. The worst thing is to come to the filming location and accidentally find out that it is a paid arrangement, the purpose of which is not known to you and on which you are not going to work. It is an unfair attitude on the part of the newsroom toward the journalist. You have the right to express your disagreement. If the situation repeats itself, you will know that that is the newsroom’s style of work. And you can decide whether to stay on it.
Decline the “special-request” tasks
If an employer is not interested in creating a professional media, instead being set up to fulfill only the media owner’s whims, journalists should correctly state their position, disagreeing to perform editorial tasks that do not meet professional standards or have all the hallmarks of paid news.
This right is enshrined in the Code of Ethics of Ukrainian Journalists (http://www.cje.org.ua/en/code). According to Article 16 of the Code, “journalists cannot be officially forced to write or do something that is contrary to their own beliefs and principles. A journalist should resist any outside interference in content, whether a direct pressure or actions having indirect signs of such interference.”
Media managers may use the Code as a lever of influence over the media owner, if, for example, they initiate the signing of (i.e. recognizing and committing to comply with) the Code by the newsroom staff. The team members can come up with this initiative themselves, to have leverage over the media managers or media owners.
If the media does not recognize the Code or follow its provisions, forcing journalists / media managers to create / publish non-professional or paid-for material (sometimes, under threat of dismissal), it makes sense to use ingenuity.
Journalists from various Ukrainian media, forced to go to paid-for filmings, say that when they had no option to refuse, they completed the editorial assignment but gave the editor their professional materials containing different points of view. This way, the journalists avoided providing grounds for their dismissal (because they did complete the editorial task). However, the editors had to spend a lot of their own time editing the material to get the “correct” version. After one or two such cases, professional journalists said, they were no longer sent to paid-for filmings, and such tasks were given to those ready to perform them.
Also remember that your field of activity is journalism. This implies compliance with the standards of information broadcasting. You do not work for the media’s investor / owner / manager but for the viewer, for the audience. Therefore, its interests should be a priority for you. If a head or a media manager demands that you disregard the ethics and standards of the profession, such as “I’m paying you“, “these are the duties of a journalist in our newsroom“, you can point out that, in this case, it is the position of “content manager” and you were not hired for it. Your professional duties imply adherence to ethical norms and standards, whether the media manager wants it or not.
Create an alternative platform for your audience
If a subject cannot be covered in a media’s professional material but is relevant to a wide audience, it may be appropriate for a professional journalist to cover it on an alternative platform. This can be their own page on social networks or other platforms, freely available to the audience. You can publish anything missing in the materials of the owner-dependent media. The journalist thus becomes a source of reliable information separate from the media and starting up their own personal brand.
If the employment contract provides for restrictions for journalists relating to social networks, it would be advisable to distribute your journalistic material via alternative sources, such as friendly media, colleagues from other media, etc.
Look for like-minded people, create trade union associations and defend the right to a profession
Much depends on the situation within the media’s team. As a rule, even in the media with the most stringent editorial policy there are people who are not satisfied with those rules. They can be relied upon to defend the right to a profession by coordinating efforts, developing tactics, collectively resolving issues with media managers. This ultimately reduces the prospects of a sudden dismissal. Because it is more difficult to at once replace several work units than one. Qualified media professionals have long been in short supply, and it is especially noticeable in the regions.
Like-minded journalists and media managers should also be sought out in media organizations, as they are designed to protect the professional rights of media people and, as practice shows, they really influence many issues in the media industry. Since the media function of self-regulation and improving quality is the main function of such organizations.
If it is necessary to keep the job despite internal and external pressure on the newsroom, it is necessary to follow the rules of internal labor regulations, avoiding providing grounds to dismiss you at the first opportunity. As a rule, they try to dismiss “uncomfortable” people in the first place using formal grounds, such as getting sick without informing the manager, failing to fulfill a task, etc. It is important to provide no such formal grounds.
Keep evidence of violations of your rights
If it is not possible to resolve differences of opinion on professional standards with the media manager, and pressure within the newsroom or external influence on the part of the owner becomes systematic, care should be taken to preserve evidence of the unlawful influence or pressure. It may never be used, but it can be very useful to protect the rights of a professional journalist in the future. If you keep receiving tasks to create paid news content or materials “from a certain angle”, it makes sense to ask to put them in writing, e.g. e-mails. Those written instructions can be important pieces of evidence, should the journalist decide on reporting pressure.
Be honest with yourself
Most importantly, it is crucial that professional journalists be honest with themselves, working in an owner-dependent media. Of course, the arguments like “we should provide for the family”, “where else to work in a small town?”, “although this media belongs to an oligarch, it offers good salaries and a social package” are important. However, it should not be explained to those aware of the media’s real impact on the social, political, and defense processes in Ukraine how the struggle between the refrigerator and freedom ends. And where those end up, whose interests are served by the most distinguished media mouthpieces.
You can state your position or produce balanced materials not only when making the respective statement during recruitment. It is never too late to do this in the process of work, appealing to the standards of modern journalism. Even if it comes as a surprise to the media’s management. We are all human, we improve, acquire new knowledge, our imagination and ability to distinguish between good and evil gets better, so there is nothing strange about it. And even if you were introduced to the limitations related to the so-called editorial policy during recruitment, do not hesitate to adjust your attitude toward it. If it surprises the administration, you can always say that the process, in your opinion, has crossed the “red line”, and it is in the interests of the media and management to adjust their policies.
But it is also necessary, especially for young journalists, to be clearly aware that staying long in a toxic newsroom leads to the so-called Stockholm syndrome within the team. When most employees begin to subconsciously justify the owner’s policy -“it’s necessary now”, “otherwise we won’t survive”, “why are they the first to throw sand in our eyes?”. Besides, in a biased media, even if you have managed to regain a bit of relatively adequate airtime, manipulation is still backed up by editorial policies, etc.
Be honest with your audience and ready for change
If you still fail to reach an agreement with the employer or investor, you should inform the newsroom staff about it. They have the right to know this in order to form their own vision of the situation.
Media managers willing to create a professional media should explain the existing rules to the team, providing everyone with a right to choose. You should also be honest with your audience, explaining how the media they trust actually works, what values and views are promoted by the newsroom. This truth could be a turning point that can eventually change the situation. At the same time, transparent editorial policy per se contributes to the audience’s more conscious choice.
There are many examples in the history of Ukrainian media, when journalists having the courage to report pressure, dependence or censorship, eventually created professional and popular media, becoming a role model for the media market.