An essay: Some Impediments to Ethical Journalism in Underdeveloped Nations

In the late 1980s as a doctoral student studying Philippine provincial journalists and their self-perception as agents of social change and development, I stumbled upon a reality I hadn't anticipated in my research design, and one that I had no easy way to measure.

These journalists, in the course of long and barely structured interviews, talked often about the widespread practice of taking bribes for printing information, or for withholding it. Some called this the AC\DC journalistic approach. "Attack and Collect, or Defend and Collect." When I returned to Asia as a Fulbright scholar in the 1990s, I found that such practices were not isolated in the Philippines.

The more I questioned these provincial journalists, the more I observed a very sophisticated professional understanding, and a degree of practical tolerance for journalistic practices such as accepting bribes, gifts, "grease money", and for "going on the take."

The focus of my study on the press and social change was for the most part diverted by the hard realities of the journalists' social, economic, and political existence. How could they be "objective" when the world in which they lived and worked was one of intense political, social and economic uncertainty?

It was easy to get journalists to describe their daily work, and to speculate on the provincial press as a tool for national development. The 54 I interviewed tended to be highly educated, including many with law degrees. They expressed a high regard for unfettered and objective press systems where journalists can report the truth and challenge the economic, social, and political status quo in an effective manner.

Such abstract and theoretical discussions were a welcome diversion from the everyday pressures of publishing a newspaper containing little advertising and realizing little legitimate profit.

I was rarely able to establish the intimacy necessary to ask these journalists if they were personally involved in taking grease money, envelopes, or other under-the-table rewards. Some strongly hinted that they or their colleagues were on the take in some way, but pursuing that line of inquiry was risky with regard to maintaining the confidence of the subjects and to pursuing other lines of inquiry.

What I was able to accomplish was establishing strong evidence of the widespread practice of what was commonly known as "envelope journalism". Generally this means payment for either printing or withholding information. Most such exchanges appeared to be so informal and so routine, that there was little or no negotiation involved. The journalist might write something legitimately positive about a local government official or business leader, and later receive an unsolicited envelope of money or a gift.

One young and obviously idealistic reporter told me how he had written a news story about a local politician and received an envelope containing the equivalent of about $20 U.S. dollars. He said he was stunned and shamed. When he tried to return the money, he said the politician also appeared stunned and shamed. Returning the "gift" was perceived as an insult to the giver and a serious deviation from established journalistic convention.

A report by the Asian Institute of Journalism presented a sympathetic but critical view of the problem of envelope journalism. It said that for both journalists and editors, economic difficulties contributed to competitive behavior and to a struggle for economic survival. Several respondents in the study admitted having compromised "objectivity" owing to low salary and poor incentives.

It was obvious that journalists were generally inadequately compensated for their legitimate reporting practices. One obviously talented and locally esteemed journalist told me he earned the equivalent of $160 a month in salary. Many reporters resort to selling, advertising, or working at other jobs, including as public relations officers and speech writers for government agencies.

I found that by its nature, provincial journalism in such nations lends to attempts by those with power and money to influence it to their own ends. (These attempts, apparently successful in many cases, fall into categories ranging from outright bribery and fixed retainer payments to lesser abuses such as an occasional free lunch, or gifts of cigarettes or liquor.)

Otherwise ethical journalists, many of whom risked their lives to take adversarial positions against local and national government, told me they were forced to condone varying forms of envelope journalism. The economic and social realities of the environment they lived and worked in made it necessary to sanction such practices or to leave the profession altogether.

I concluded from the initial study of Philippine provincial journalists that envelope journalism was widely practiced. There is little to suggest that in 1999 it has diminished.

Certainly, attempting to apply imported codes of journalism ethics and practices barely applicable in Western nations, where journalists are more apt to earn a middle class wage, is likely to have negligible results.

In further pursuing the topic of corruption among journalists in underdeveloped nations, researchers should avoid a condemnation of these practices, before they have assessed the economic, political, and social barriers that foster them. Rather, an empathetic approach is needed which incorporates situational ethics and assumes that most any journalist would act in a like manner given similar economic and political insecurities.

My findings with regard to envelope journalism are admittedly methodologically suspect. The approach in the interviews was too casual and indirect. Still they have proven useful in that they were incorporated into ethics workshops for journalists that have begun the conversation on how to move toward more ethical journalistic practices. I am, however, convinced reasonably ethical practices will emerge only when these journalists are reasonably paid for what they accomplish as accurate and fair reporters and editors.

Richard Shafer
Associate Professor of Journalism
UND School of Communication
Grand Forks, North Dakota
tel. 701-777-4815\ e-mail: rshafer@prairie.nodak.edu
from Dec. 19th to Jan. 4th, contact in Salt Lake City at: tel. 801-485-5333

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on November 13, 2009 11:30 AM.

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