We weren’t aware of it until recently, but the Parliamentary Standing committee on Paid News (i.e. corruption in the media) in India (download) released earlier this month  quotes segments from MediaNama’s submission, made to them at the end of 2010.  Our views largely focus on significantly enhancing disclosures, differentiating between advertorials and editorial, setting up a body similar to TDSAT to address disputes, and recommendations regarding digital media and blogs. You can download our complete submission here.

Based on anecdotal evidence, we do believe that the situation in online media has worsened, and we’ve heard of instances of stories being available for editing to sponsors, user databases being sold, publications being paid for guest blog posts and interviews, publications setting up meetings between Venture Capitalists and startups (which we see as a clear conflict of interest) apart from the usual things such as junkets and review devices not being taken back. This is a norm (as are undisclosed speaker slots in conferences, but that is a separate story), and we have faced many instances of potential advertisers trying to slip in an interview or an article (“editorial support” some call it), in the middle of a marketing discussion; just faced such a situation day before yesterday, in fact. We have always refused.

In this context, our views on Paid News in Digital Media are a little outdated (by three years), and our views regarding regulation have changed since, but here they are for your reference, as well as some information on disclosures regarding advertorials:

1. Distinguishing between Advertorials and News Reports: often advertorials (a form of paid news) are carried in a manner where there is little to distinguish news and reviews from legitimate content. It has been suggested in the past, that advertorials should have a font different from regular news content. In our opinion, this will not work.

In the digital space, the form factor (text typeface, text size) is determined by the device that the content is received in, or the settings of readers (in case of a news syndication RSS feed). New digital devices like the iPad, and applications like Flipboard change the form factor of the content to suit predetermined settings. Publishers no longer have control over form factor on digital devices. We would recommend that advertorials or paid news carry the text “THIS IS AN ADVERTISEMENT” before and after the advertorial content, in the same size as the majority of the text of the advertorial. In case of TV, a particular feature that is paid /sponsored, should at all times, display the text ‘THIS SHOW IS AN ADVERTISEMENT’ for the duration of the show, at the top center of the screen in a font size that is the same as the median font size of the news channel ticker.
In addition, all advertorials should be treated as advertisements, and the advertiser should be directly held responsible for claims made in these advertorials, just as with any advertisement.

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5. Recommendations regarding Digital media:

Digital Media, on Internet and Mobile, through text and voice, currently offers a reach of 700 million connections, and by the next election, will have a reach of 1 billion connections. Each of these can be a source of reporting news. It needs to be treated on par with traditional means of disseminating news and information.

a. We would recommend that any guidelines issued governing traditional print, TV and radio businesses should also be applicable to digital businesses owned by the media publications (both Internet and Mobile).

b. Registration of online and mobile media: Instances of paid news online can go unnoticed by regulators, and it is impossible to regulate all activity on the Internet. However, given the influence that blogs have on consumers researching technology products like mobile phones online, we’ve observed instances of bloggers being taken on international junkets and trips, and their reports thereafter have not been supplemented with adequate disclosures to their readers. The ‘quid pro quo’ is no longer just restricted to traditional media. In the mind of the reader, blogs and online publications have emerged as credible sources of information, and given that this is an unregulated, unstructured platform, we would recommend that those Internet and Mobile Media businesses that wish to hold themselves to a higher standard held by traditional media businesses, also be allowed to register with the Indian government as media businesses, to allow themselves to be governed by the same regulations as traditional media.

c. Online Endorsements/Paid News: It is increasingly becoming difficult to differentiate between selective representation of advertising, with publications offering readers a mix of news, opinion, reviews and analysis, particularly of technology products and services. We recommend that the standing committee looking into paid news follow down the path that the FTC took in the United States of America, and issue guidelines to be followed by bloggers. The US’s Federal Trade Commission issued guidelines according to which all endorsements (in which case the blogger was compensated by the advertiser or its agent, in cash or kind, wherein the product or service in question was provided for free by the advertiser, should disclose the terms of any agreement, the length of the relationship and the value of items or services received. The FTC defines endorsements as follows:

An endorsement means any message (including verbal statements, demonstrations, or depictions of the name, signature, likeness or other identifying personal characteristics of an individual or the name or seal of an organization) that consumers are likely to believe reflects the opinions, beliefs, findings, or experiences of a party other than the sponsoring advertiser, even if the views expressed by that party are identical to those of the sponsoring advertiser.[1]

There is a ‘Pay-Per-Post’ model wherein brands were paying bloggers to endorse certain products, but adequate disclosures were not applied. We suspect that such practices are also being followed in India, because businesses have, at times, inquired from us, rates for carrying paid news. We have always declined, but this suggests that such practices are widespread.

We would request that the Standing Committee issue similar guidelines for bloggers, though we don’t think there should be regulation of the Internet. Anyone can become a publisher online, and a set of guidelines from the Standing Committee will give blogging and online publishing a sense of directions and ethical guidelines.

Please note the urgency of issuing guidelines: mobile broadband will allow millions of Indians on the Internet and the Mobile Internet to become creators of content, and indeed, publishers. Imagine a situation five years from now, wherein 700 million mobile phones in India will be capable of streaming video live to the mobile Internet.

[1] Source: Federal Trade Commission 16 CFR Part 255 Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising; http://www.ftc.gov/os/2009/10/091005endorsementguidesfnnotice.pdf

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Download: Our views on addressing issues related to paid news in traditional media. Note that our views on some of these recommendations have since changed, especially given attacks by the government on freedom of speech in India.