I got an email recently from a TOL correspondent who had contacted a scholarly organization for a story she was working on for us. It was hardly an expose and she had just needed to talk to someone associated with the organization (I’d like to disclose the organization, but doing so would make the correspondent’s life difficult for very little gain).

A few days after making contact with the group, she received a call from its press officer that went like this:

press officer: Don’t run the story unless I see it.
writer: This is against the editorial policy. I can’t do that. Sorry.
p.o.: Then, I don’t let you run it.
w: Don’t you think this is an act of censorship?
p.o.: What? This is in your own interest.

Without quite explaining that last bit, the spokesman then tried to talk her into interviewing his boss, adding, “We can also talk about your honorarium.” To which she replied, “I don’t do PR stories.”

In her reporting, our correspondent ran into another journalist working on a similar story. That reporter wrote a flattering piece that appeared in a supposedly independent publication, and, according to our correspondent, was paid by the scholarly organization after having promised to let it review the article before publication.

All this is nothing new to journalists who work in the regions that TOL covers. And it’s worth pointing out that it’s not always the journalists who are the innocents – several years ago a reporter at a Czech newspaper famously refused to attend a press event if there were to be no free sandwiches.

But it’s still worth airing publicly. In most of the countries we cover, people in government, business, even advocacy groups expect to be able to approve a story that they have provided information for. In some countries, that expectation is effectively backed up by law. TOL’s policy is that we don’t allow sources to approve stories, although we may doublecheck quotations or information with a source.

The culture of media manipulation is depressing enough on its own, but it’s perhaps worse when it comes in countries that insist on their own enlightened credentials (as does the country where this instance happened).

TOL regularly writes about journalists who have been imprisoned or even murdered because of their work. But it’s this everyday drumbeat of people who think they can tell reporters what to write that is the more immediate threat in most cases.

So here’s to that reporter who told the PR flack to take a hike.

Photo by Andy Mangold/flickr.

Barbara Frye

Barbara Frye is Transitions Online’s managing editor. Email: barbara.frye@tol.org

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