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A recent political cartoon depicted Obama sitting in a chair. He is swamped by a pack of dogs, eager to receive his affection. The cartoon entitled “vicious media watch dogs” encapsulated the media industry’s criticism in biased reporting. Obviously these “vicious media watch dogs” are diverted from their mission, but we should put this in contrast with what has recently happened to executives at BBC and the decision by the Australian Broadcast Corporation to publicly post its transparency and Sustainability intentions clearly on their website.

Public Perception of Bias

Now, fewer Americans closely follow political news than in previous election years due to a perception of bias.[i] Sixty percent of Americans perceive a political bias, almost 4 to 1. With 47% those surveyed saying the media are too liberal and 13% saying they are too conservative. Similar results were report by Gallup in the preceding year.

Americans are clearly down on the news media this election year, with a record-high six in 10 expressing little or no trust in the mass media’s ability to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly. This likely reflects the continuation of the trend seen in recent years, combined with the increased negativity toward the media that election years tend to bring. This is particularly consequential at a time when Americans need to rely on the media to learn about the platforms and perspectives of the two candidates vying to lead the country for the next four years.

Independents and Republicans drive this year’s decline in media trust. The 31% and 26%, respectively, who express a great deal or fair amount of trust are record lows and are down significantly from last year. Republicans’ level of trust this year is similar to what they expressed in the fall of 2008, implying that they are especially critical of election coverage.

On a broad level, Americans’ high level of distrust in the media poses a challenge to democracy and to creating a fully engaged citizenry. Media sources must clearly do more to earn the trust of Americans, the majority of whom see the media as biased one way or the other. At the same time, there is an opportunity for others outside the “mass media” to serve as information sources that Americans do trust.[ii]

Media Distrust of Transparency

News organizations cultivate a reputation for demanding transparency, whether by suing for access to government documents, dispatching camera crews to the doorsteps of recalcitrant politicians, or editorializing in favor of open government.

But now many of the country’s biggest media companies, which own dozens of newspapers and TV news operations, are flexing their muscle in Washington in a fight against a government initiative to increase transparency of political spending.

The corporate owners or sister companies of some of the biggest names in journalism — NBC News, ABC News, Fox News, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Politico, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and dozens of local TV news outlets — are lobbying against a Federal Communications Commission measure that would require broadcasters to post political ad data on the Internet.

… political ad data is public by law but is not widely accessible because it is currently kept only in paper files at individual stations. The FCC has proposed fixing that by requiring broadcasters to post on the Internet details of political ad purchases including the identity of the buyer and the price. [iii]

Television stations by law must offer political candidates the lowest rates on ads. Broadcasters have argued that by making this information available online and not just at stations, it would hurt their ability to negotiate with other advertisers.

Advocates for the online disclosure rule have countered that the political ad information is already public by law and the measure would simply make the existing disclosure rules relevant for the Internet age. They have also pointed out that keeping paper files in electronic form should actually be more efficient for stations.[iv]

Guarding Trust and Brand

Although U.S. media seems to ignore transparency principles, executive commitment across the Atlantic is taking transparency seriously. Because of poor news investigation, BBC is taking transparency to heart by making executive changes.

Last week, George Entwistle, the director general of the BBC, was forced to resign after a wave of public criticism. In late 2011, Entwistle was the head of BBC television, and thus ultimately responsible for airing the tributes to Jimmy Savile. He had died in 2011 and allegedly sexually abused a number of underage female teens. Again, on November 12, two more editors were forced to step down at BBC as the investigation continued to report about allegations of sexual abuse against longtime star Jimmy Savile. [v]

BBC Trust chairman Chris Patten said on Sunday confidence had to be restored if the publicly funded corporation was to withstand pressure from rivals, especially Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, which would try to take advantage of the turmoil. “If you’re saying, ‘Does the BBC need a thorough structural radical overhaul?’, then absolutely it does, and that is what we will have to do,” Patten, a one-time senior figure in Prime Minister David Cameron‘s Conservative Party and the last British governor of Hong Kong, told BBC television.[vi]

Does Transparency Exist for the U.S. Media?

Full transparency is a litmus test for leadership’s commitment. Are transparency principles actually recognized by U.S. media corporations? If these executives are not supporting transparency, then the support for Sustainability is definitively in question. On the other hand, if the executives are supporting transparency, are media companies being influenced by external organizations that affect their decision-making, affecting business strategies or compromising ethical standards? Here are other issues that could abrogate transparency:

  • Do special interest groups drive media companies?
  • Does government regulations over campaign laws limit freedom of speech?
  • Are media companies politically engaged for one side over another and simultaneously taking revenues from both sides?

Conflict of interests is often investigated by news media regarding government legislation and business dealings. Results are breaking news worthy stories, possible convictions and perhaps new legislation that address the abuse. How is conflict of interests addressed within contemporary media companies? From a brand viewpoint, this would be risk to brand. Here are a few questions that recognize the impact on their customers, political affiliation or overlooking risks to brand:

  • Are media companies addressing their audience’s need for information to make educated decisions, such as voting?
  • Is there conflict of interests in balancing information from media companies with alignment to political parties?
  • Are media companies empowered by their audiences or do they manipulate them?
  • Are freelance writers held to the same level of quality and reliability than their staff journalists?
  • Are editors verifying content before publishing and are they effectively executing due diligence?

Unbiased fact checking that is nonpartisan, by nature, by balancing reporting objectively would improve media’s standing. In this case there is a prime example: The League of Women Voters use a standard of “neither supporting nor opposing candidates or political parties at any level of government, but always working on vital issues of concern to members and the public.”

  • Do media companies embrace similar standards as the League for Women Voters?
  • Do media companies report on self-censorship?
  • Should media companies be held accountable for its perceived bias or keep ignoring it?
  • How do media companies exercise the right to freedom of expression for the individual?
  • As a media company, does it reflect cultural diversity through content for the entire population or is it selective?

Media and Sustainability

Australian Broadcast Corporation is a good example of applied transparency outlining their Sustainability initiative, goals and sharing those details with the public. Taken directly from their web, they define Corporate Responsibility as:

The ABC is committed to Corporate Social Responsibility and aims to deliver content with integrity, diligence and transparency and acts in the interests of the Australian community. This responsibility ensures the ABC focuses on the impacts of its decisions and business activities on society, the marketplace, and the environment. The ABC is committed to fulfilling its objectives across all business and broadcasting activities in a manner that is ethical, financially responsible, manages its impact on the environment and people, and is beneficial to the community.[vii]

In addition, ABC approaches Sustainability with general accepted tools for reporting their progress, the GRI:

The ABC utilizes the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) framework in the preparation of its Sustainability Report. GRI’s Sustainability Reporting Framework provides a common language for companies and organizations to measure and report their Sustainability performance. The framework relies on key reporting principles of transparency, inclusiveness, stakeholder engagement and materiality.[viii]

In contrast, most American media corporations emphasize “green” initiatives and banal slogans like “generalize their concern for the planet”, “that strives to use its power and reach for the public good”, “has earned the distinction of being a public trust”, “while identifying opportunities for energy savings and innovation”. Most American media corporations do not document transparency or indicate usage in their annual Sustainability Reports or websites. Why is transparency not given visibility?

Is GRI the answer?

As a mechanism for promoting integrity and accountability, Global Reporting Initiative’s (GRI’s) project is both worthwhile and timely. The discussion to be had is not about the legitimacy of GRI’s objectives but the practicalities of how these are to be accomplished.

It is difficult to see us arriving at a commonly accepted definition of what it means for a media company to be environmentally, socially and financially sustainable. But if anyone can come close to such a compromise, it is bound to be the GRI.[ix]

The Media Supplement’s additional commentaries and Performance Indicators, developed especially for the sector, capture the issues that matter most for media organizations:

  • Ownership structure
  • Transparency on decision making processes and public policy
  • Editorial independence
  • Financial assistance and advertising revenues from governments and non-government sources
  • Freedom of expression
  • Approaches to the creation and dissemination of content
  • Use of paper and inks [x]

Does the GRI ensure transparency or Sustainability? No, it is only a tool for those companies truly committed to Sustainability. However, adopting this tool is a part of your best practices and is based on fact gathering in your organization. Dr. Peter Drucker once said, “what gets measured gets done.” When a company publicly discloses Sustainability data and goals, measures its progress, then its much more likely to attain those goals.

Transparency, a Lens to Sustainability

Transparency is a lens to examine the core values of an organization. It is insight to corporate mores. Are there barriers and reluctance to publicly share and be transparent? Is it corruption, is it ashamed of poor business practices, or does it have a poor business reputation in the community? In contrast, is it open, is it responsible, is it engaged with the community and clearly listens to its constituents? What transparency should be:

  • Executive Commitment is a long-term journey with Transparency, Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility. It is a leadership role and resolves redefinition of their organization to create an environment that weaves new principles into their corporate culture.
  • Accountability is ownership of responsibility, including a sense of fairness.
  • Ethics is doing the right thing for the right reason. There are many definitions as to what ethics encompasses:

the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation;
decisions, choices, and actions we make that reflect and enact our values;
a set of moral principles or values;
a theory or system of moral values; and/or
a guiding philosophy.[xi]

Conclusions

The U.S. media appears to broadcast a “green” initiative in their organizations without true transparency. A strategy that ignores transparency is reminiscent of the old TV commercial; “where’s the beef?” It appears to be “green” in name only without sharing transparency strategies, objectives or data.

Sustainability is not an expendable marketing campaign; rather it’s a refection of benefits established with honest strategic effort, results, and best practices. It must be imprinted into your corporate culture, it should be a long-term commitment and be transparent to the public. It must be interwoven with business strategies. It must engage and build relationships  with external organizations. Sustainability is about measurable transformation, internally and externally. Sustainability is more than platitudes and recycling efforts. It should be able to show financial benefits directly relating to waste reduction, conservation, improvement of internal processes and engagement with external publics (i.e., NGOs, Governments, Customers, Suppliers, etc.).

Consider the consequences. If they do not change and continue building risk to their brand that could have a financial impact, address the issue and establish self-governing principles or risk government regulations that could have political ramifications, as well. Will American media industry choose self-censorship and turn to using transparency to demonstrate accountability and commitment to fair reporting, regardless of complexity or will it continue to erode trust and foster a perceived agenda that is biased? Are U.S. media companies approaching distrust by betting against public backlash?

Look at the well thought out approach in Britain and Australia. In Britain, the decision will rest on the benefits garnered by BBC’s courage to change course for the right reasons. They acknowledge that the hard earned trust of the public is fundamental to British citizen’s presumption to encapsulate integrity in daily news broadcasts. It also shows that ABC has spent considerable time in understanding Sustainability and publicly sharing their strategies. Both BBC and ABC demonstrate clear examples of commitment and responsibility driven by Sustainability.

So, will U.S. media recognize benefits of presumption of transparency like their media cousins, or will it be business as usual, based on continued distrust and potential for public backlash?


[i] Lymari Morales, U.S. Distrust in Media Hits New High, Gallup, September 21, 2012; Retrieved: 10 Nov 2012
[ii] Lymari Morales, Ibid.; Retrieved: 10 Nov 2012
[iii] Justin Elliott, Big Media Lobbies Against Transparency, ProPublica, Apr 23, 2012; Retrieved: 10 Nov 2012
[iv] Justin Elliott, Ibid., Apr 23, 2012
[v] Peter Jukes, Two More Resign as Savile Fallout Continues at the BBC, The Daily Beast, 12 Nov 2012
[vi] Michael Holden and Kate Holton, BBC Head Says Broadcaster Must Reform Or Die, Reuters, Nov 12, 2012
[vii] Australian Broadcast Corporation, http://www.abc.net.au/, Retrieved: 16 November 2012
[viii] ABC, Ibid., 16, November 2012
[ix] Christian Toennesen, Can the Global Reporting Initiative help restore faith in the media, The Guardian, guardian.co.uk, July 2011
[x] Global Reporting Initiative, http://www.globalreporting.org; GRI provides sector guidance for the media industry, enabling media companies to measure and report their sustainability performance. Retrieved: 10 Nov 2012
[xi] From “Creating a Workable Company Code of Conduct,” 2003, Ethics Resource Center
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