When Your Story Angel Can be Bought...

Phyllis Tsang - Hon Secretary, HKJA.

[Jan 2011 - The Journalist] Just imagine: A reporter, assigned to interview Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Stephen Lam Sui-lung on election of Chief Executive and Legislative Council, was told that Lam is the “client” of the reporter’s news organisation so the content, angle and heading of the story must be approved by the client.

Ridiculous? Impossible? Absolutely not – if you are a journalist in Taiwan. There is nothing crazy or ridiculous about this because it has been going on for several years, according to the Association of Taiwan Journalists (ATJ).

Do you know that the news was paid by government?
At an Asia-Pacific regional meeting of the International Federation of Journalists held in last September, executive member of the ATJ, Miss Annpo Huang Yi-ying, shared with newsmen from the region this discontent of Taiwan journalists on the trend of “embedded marketing in news story.”

The anger of our Taiwan counterparts surfaced last month. Huang Je-bing, editor of the investigative reporting team who worked in China Times for more than 16 years, resigned. He stated clearly in his resignation letter that he was protesting against the rampant ad-news in the newspaper. He even launched a signature campaign in opposition to ad-news and promised to speak out publicly if invited.

As a matter of fact, the ATJ felt the heat and uploaded to Youtube a video clip, titled “Dignity of Journalists: Anti-embedded marketing in news stories” on Journalist Day, September 1st 2010 to express anger of Taiwanese journalists over this trend.

The embedded marketing in news stories has rampant about five years ago when Apple Daily began publishing in Taiwan. Advertising income of many media outlets began dropping significantly, and news became a means to gaining income from advertisers.

“No matter what the news stories in papers and TV news programs were about, advertising messages could be embedded and nothing was said to show this was a paid advertisement,” Huang said.

Embedded Marketing News Everywhere

A video was uploaded to Youtube by the Association of Taiwan Journalists
in protest of ad-news.
According to ATJ embedded marketing in news stories are easily found in mainstream papers like United Daily News, China Times, Liberty Times, and news programmes of TV stations Formosa TV, ETTV, and Sanlin E Television.

The price for embedded marketing news stories is about TND $100 per word for political stories, an additional of TND $30,000 for a photo accompanying the story.

In short, a political story of 1000 words could be sold for a TND$100,000 on the market, as reported by Wealth Magazine.

Besides, some businessmen even directly ask about the price for a news story on their products. For instance they are willing to pay about TND $2 million for his products being mentioned eight times in news pages.

“Some businessmen with limited budget will request a news story on his product for about TWD $100,000 to $200,000. Media organizations will set a topic on this then tell the journalist to interview the client only for that story,” an anonymous news editor was quoted as saying in the magazine.

An astonishing example shows even the chief of highest government office, former premier of Taiwan Executive Yuan, Liu Chao-shiuan, paid four newspapers for an interview when he was in office in 2008.

“Different papers handled this interview differently, some only showed the byline of the editor-in-chief in the story, some kept it as a staff reporter story. Although media people knew these were embedded marketing news stories, their readers were not informed,” Wealth Magazine said.

This is very clearly shows that such news arrangements misleading readers.

Still, “a news story can be bought” is an open secret in the public relations sector in Taiwan. A head of public relations firm, Chris Lin of a medical consultancy, frankly told the CommonWealth Magazine that “it is possible to talk about price of a news story.”

Well-known examples of how news have become an advertising product included “An old surfer” about a 70-year-old man who was interviewed in a news program of ETTV, and was later found to be a spokesman for a health medicine company.

A grandmother riding a bike was interviewed in another news story, and was later found to be a spokesperson for a bicycle brand, the CommonWealth Magazine found.

Journalists Turned into Salesman

Increasing numbers of news stories have been found to have been paid for by advertisers. Over 60 per cent of TV news journalists say they have covered “news stories paid for by advertisers,” in a survey which interviewed 300 TV news journalists conducted by journalism school academic Chen Bing-hung.

“About sixty per cent of the journalists said special news report is indeed advertising, and 70 per cent of interviewees said they did not accept paid news arrangement,” the survey showed.

“This is so sad that many editor-in-chief or news editor have become salesmen, fighting for advertising income instead of pressing journalists for good news,” Huang of the ATJ said.

Is there any media outlet refusing to have embedded marketing in news stories? The answer might be a surprise: Apple Daily and Next Media in Taiwan are clean.

Apart from some news organization distancing themselves from this, many journalists have made an effort to write good stories even though the media they belonged to are not paid to do so.

“Indeed, some issues are meaningful and deserve a good coverage although organizers paid the media. Though paid journalists presented the story in “guided boring ways,” some journalists nevertheless produced good stories with a good coverage in the papers although they were not paid and could put the advertisement agency in a very embarrassing situation,” Huang said about the ways journalists struggled to make some changes.

Alertness in HK Should be Heightened

When sharing the situation in Hong Kong with Huang, the controversy over the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) paying Commercial Radio for a program at midnight was mentioned, in addition to how the ensuing public outcry over political parties buying over programs.

More about political parties and government officials buying out news program have been forthcoming. In February the Urban Renewal Authority paid Commercial Radio HKD $160,000 for four programs on Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.

Lam could give her views on urban redevelopment instead of being interviewed by journalists in programs under this paid arrangement.

This unhealthy trend has swept across Taiwan, and seems to be heading across the Taiwan strait. Hong Kong journalists need to be more aware of this tendency and alert to infringements on freedom of press.

Translated by Phyllis Tsang

Tien His-ju, “Are you reading news or advertisements? Government using public money to take the lead buyout the news,” Wealth Magazine, issue 360, 2010/11/24
(Tien is the former chairman of Association of Taiwan Journalists)
Lin Chao-chen, “Whose buy off the media?” CommonWealth Magazine, issue 316, 2005/02/01