A lot has been written about ‘brown envelope’ (some call it ‘envelopmental’) journalism and its effect on media performance and relationship with society.
However, as we approach the elections, and given the intense competition for media space, there is wont to be increased accusations of corruption in the media.
This is given the fact that some people believe the media can make or break careers, and that journalists then ought to be lobbied to write and publish positive or negative stories, or indeed ‘kill’ articles that will damage or improve the profile of candidates.
Whatever the case, envelopmental journalism is a big elephant in newsrooms? In fact, various media houses have had campaigns against this malaise which has dented the image of and the trust bestowed upon the media by audiences or consumers.
The Nation Media Group (NMG) has, for example, had a long-running campaign against brown envelope journalism.
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In its recent newspaper campaign, it holds that the integrity of Kenyan journalism is at stake because of brown envelope journalism.
The media house defines brown envelope journalism as a practice “where journalists, or people purporting to be journalists, solicit or accept various forms of kickbacks, gifts or cash rewards in exchange for favourable press coverage”.
As NMG suggests, there are people masquerading as or purporting to be journalists. These charlatans often prowl the news scene, pretending to work for various media houses and solicit bribes to ostensibly engineer the publication or killing of stories.
Some time back, ‘journalists’ were filmed fighting for handouts given by a ‘popular’ news maker.
The joke is that ‘journalists’ now have to be ‘released’ (euphemism for bribed) to leave press conferences addressed by politicians and others seeking media coverage.
Thus, by carrying out the campaign, NMG and others implicitly acknowledge that the practice is commonplace (and will most likely grow in the coming months especially during the political campaigns leading to the August elections).
And more importantly is the notion that it is “committed to ensuring that journalists at our newspapers, radio and TV are beyond reproach.”
However, the definition by NMG seems to blame individual journalists as perpetrators and beneficiaries of the vice. We know that media houses are never innocent, and thus require serious self-reflection.
In other words, media companies in Kenya should not focus on individual journalists only given that brown envelope journalism is part of the cancer of corruption affecting several segments of the media industry. Thus the definition of and interventions to deal with corruption need to be expanded.
Look at, for instance, the definition of corruption as offered by the United Nations Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Division.
The UN body defines corruption as “bribery and any other behaviour in relation to persons entrusted with responsibilities in the public or private sector which violates their duties that follow from their status as public official, private employee, independent agent or other relationship of that kind... aimed at obtaining undue advantages of any kind for themselves or for others”.
That definition is broad enough to make the media industry re-examine its own definition of corruption and then improve efforts to eradicate it among its members.
They should look at brown envelope journalism more broadly, beyond the kickbacks, gifts or cash rewards offered to individuals so they can provide favourable coverage. The media houses themselves are prone to corruption.
For instance, we know that sources and advertisers hold undue influence on how issues are sometimes covered in the media.
It may not always be obvious but big advertisers sometimes influence the publication of positive stories about them. They also often influence the killing of negative stories or those that show them in bad light.
Media scholars Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky have argued in their seminal work, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, that the media “the mass media are drawn into a symbiotic relationship with powerful sources of information by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest”.
Consequently, if we take the United Nations Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Division definition, the media that fall prey to the big advertisers and elite and powerful sources which is a form of corruption.
This is especially true because it means some people obtain “undue advantages of any kind for themselves or for others”.
In essence, corruption is not only about the exchange of kickbacks, gifts or cash rewards. It may also include influence-peddling which entails influencing the publication of certain stories at the expense of others, or killing damaging articles.
A critical look at stories in some media organisations would illustrate the serious challenges of ‘corruption’ facing journalists today, and thus the need to move beyond the common narrative of brown envelope journalism.
Moreover, the media may want to demonstrate that they are willing to deal with corruption within their community with the same zeal they do when public officials are implicated.
In addition, there is clearly the need for serious introspection within the media industry on how to cure the profession of this malaise that threatens to harm its relations with consumers or audiences whose trust of the media is clearly ebbing.
It is particularly worrying that this is happening at a time when the people need (media) information to make informed choices during the coming general election.
The writer lectures at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Nairobi.