The Anonymous Alien
My company is constantly promoting itself here in India. We place ads in newspapers, on radio, on TV… all over the place. We also use a public relations firm to get us meetings with newspaper reporters whenever we have something ‘big’ going on, and hope that they will write positive stories about us.
All well and good, right? Not quite.Everything in news-print land is not what it appears to be.Some of the newspapers charge us to have them run ‘news’ stories about us. The charge can be a required ‘gift’ to the reporter, a free lunch or flat-out cash.Again, no issues, right? And again, not quite.
These same newspapers then run the story — the story we paid to have run — without printing, clearly and for all to see, that the ‘news’ story is actually paid advertising. Get it? The story is run side by side with other news stories, but is actually a paid ad. And this of course means that the reader of the newspaper has no idea
which stories are ‘news’, and which are advertisements.Now if you think that’s not a big issue, think again.Imagine a big news story on page one about a new cream that makes you lose fat. Reported as news, everyone and their mother would buy it. Printed as an ad, collective, learned scepticism kicks in, which isn’t to say nobody would buy it, but it’s no longer perceived as fact — it’s correctly perceived as a sales attempt.
But it can get a whole lot worse. What’s to stop a politician from paying to run a ‘news’ story that falsely accuses his opponent of reprehensible behaviour; as a political ad, people inherently take such a story with a grain of salt. Perceived as a news story, people are far more likely to assume it’s true.
Take it one step further. If news can be bought, what’s to stop commodity traders from running ‘news’ stories that there’s a shortage in some commodity, thus manipulating market prices and illegally making millions? Who’s to say a terrorist group couldn’t run a fake news story to stir up political trouble, and actually cause a death in some riot caused by their story?
A free press is a cornerstone of any successful democracy. It shines light on corrupt companies and politicians and cops and thus helps the democracy move towards being a freer and fairer society. When that same press is inherently flawed — positioning ads as news and news as ads — it has the opposite effect.
I propose that this practice be outlawed. The law should mandate that paid stories be clearly labelled as advertisements. Now I realise that some will argue that regulating the news industry is counter to the very idea of a free press. I don’t buy it. I’m a huge believer in, say, free speech but still think it should be illegal to yell “fire” in a movie theatre when there is no fire.Oh, and just for the record? I didn’t pay anyone to run this story in this paper. Or did I?
A foreigner’s observations on living,working, surviving and thriving in India.