Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Sep-Oct 2014

Come buy my headlines

The dangerous practice of commercialising the news.

(The article was first published in Sep-Oct 2014 edition of Aurora.)

No news, contrary to popular belief, is NOT good news! Pakistan is a happening place and people want to know what is happening. All the time.

The media, especially television, capitalises on this hunger and feeds it with its coverage. It whets our appetite by the dramatic presentation of content, and not necessarily restricted to the hourly news bulletin.

The breaking news syndrome, the triple layer of tickers and half hour updates are signs of the consumptive media and it does not stop there. It spills over to talk shows, which are ostensibly for news analysis. It is quite another matter that they usually degenerate into slanging matches between opinionated hosts and guests with divergent views, thereby totally debasing the concept of diversity and plurality of views.

News bulletins, supposed to be the raison d’être for the many news channels that mushroomed after former President Musharraf ‘freed’ the media, thereby offering audiences more choice have, however, morphed into something else. The news generally has a slant, a very obvious one. It becomes a mix of reportage, satire and comic relief, instead of the serious business it should be.

To be fair, people who are concerned about journalistic values have sounded a note of caution at this trend. Yet it continues unabated. Why? You guessed it. Advertising!

After all, money does make the mare go, and the money thrown at the media is done indiscriminately and without regard to any standard or code of conduct. It is a mix of whipping up the appetite of audiences for a certain kind of content and then placing the advertising there, as it is sure to get the eyeballs.

However, accepting this trend has meant that advertising has not remained confined within the domain of traditional placement – before, in between, and after news bulletins and programmes. It has pushed the boundaries, and set in place the dangerous trend of ‘sponsored news.’ Innocuous as this may seem, it has the potential of exerting influence over the news content, thereby opening up a Pandora’s Box of conflict of interest issues.

Thus we get: “This news bulletin is sponsored/brought to you by” announcements before the airing of the news bulletin on most private TV channels. When asked to comment, veteran advertiser and media person, Javed Jabbar, who was also a member of the Media Commission appointed to look into the ethical aspects of advertising during the 2013 elections, had this to say:


“Channels need money to survive and news in Pakistan is the most widely watched programme.”

Professor Shahida Kazi


“Advertiser sponsorship of news bulletins on TV channels aptly symbolises how the sanctity of hard facts, pure news and accurate information has become polluted by considerations of profit at the expense of the public interest, factors which affect the selection, duration and presentation tone of news content.”

Pakistan is not a unique model of privately owned media that needs advertising to survive.

We took a sampling of some countries where private media functions. In the US, for example, advertising runs before, mid-break and at the end of the news bulletin. Robert Michael Yuna, an electronic media specialist, with experience in training journalists in Pakistan, India and Nigeria, and of the media in the US and Canada had this to say:

“It may not be ideal, but privately owned TV channels are always looking for revenue to pay the rent. In Canada, local news programmes on public TV channels are sponsored in one way or another.”

In Hong Kong, there was less advertising in between the news bulletin in the English language channels compared to those in Chinese.

In the UK, the BBC presents a unique model of a channel that receives government funding but is not government controlled. The national edition carries no advertising while the international one does; however the news is not sponsored.


PEMRA’s Code of Conduct states that “all advertisements must be clearly distinguishable as such and be separate from the programmes and should not in any manner take the form of news or documentary.”


Coming back to the Pakistani context, there is a simple driving force behind this trend. As Professor Shahida Kazi, Dean of Media Sciences, Mohammad Ali Jinnah University says:

“Channels need money to survive and news in Pakistan is the most widely watched programme.”

This does not mean that the people responsible for bringing in the money to run the channels are not aware of the lines drawn between content and marketing.

According to Shahrukh Hasan, Group MD, Jang Group, “There is no conflict of interest if the news bulletin segment is sponsored. However, the content that is not produced by the channel itself must be clearly flagged as an advertisement, advertorial or paid programme. For instance news segments like business news and weather reports are sponsored even on BBC and CNN.”

And according to Faisal Sherjan, Head of Strategy, Planning and New Business Development, Geo TV, “Sponsorship of news is something of a Subcontinental anomaly.”

It is almost impossible for news organisations to self regulate. The commercial desire would be too great. It has to be done by the regulator. In the UK, sponsoring the news is not allowed and none of the news channels from Pakistan distributed in the UK have their news sponsored.

It seems, therefore, that the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) is not doing its job. A rule whereby news cannot be sponsored should have been part of the licensing terms. PEMRA’s Code of Conduct states that “all advertisements must be clearly distinguishable as such and be separate from the programmes and should not in any manner take the form of news or documentary.”


Whether or not a subscription model is introduced in Pakistan, media owners along with the advertising fraternity need to thrash out these issues in order to enable the networks to continue to earn their revenues while learning about the importance of upholding ethical and professional standards.


This is all very well. But the only distinction made is between regular advertising and advertorials, and journalists who care about the quality and ethics of their profession are of the opinion that this is must be addressed.

According to senior journalist, Zubeida Mustafa, “There have been cases of governments planting news without owning it in the US and the UK. It also happens in Pakistan. It is a serious matter because the ‘scoop’ appears to be genuine.”

Although this is not a new or unique issue for news channels, the most interesting insight came from India, where Samarth Pathak, a journalist and advocacy expert, did a quick scan of the channels and came up with a list of channels where the news bulletins were sponsored. Newshour on Times Now is sponsored by Amity University, Luminous Group, Samsonite and Xolo. Aap Ki Adalat on India TV is sponsored by Hero Motocorp and Shakti Pumps, while India TV’s Superfast 200 bulletin is supported by Emami, Ranbaxy, Rupa Hosiery and Tata Motors.

However, introspection is taking place in India and according to Pathak, “Independent journalists and outlets, such as TheHoot.org and Media Laundry, have often talked about these issues in the open. Also, our Press Council, under Justice Katju, was quite vocal in airing its concerns, but unfortunately the Council had no teeth.”

Maybe it is time we paid heed to Shabeeh Ikram, former Chairman, Pakistan Advertisers Society (PAS), who says, “In the West, news channels are usually subscription based and therefore not fully dependent on ad revenue. This is not the case in Pakistan; therefore news channels require massive advertising revenue which leads to headline news being sponsored. In my view news should not be sponsored, especially the headlines.”

Whether or not a subscription model is introduced in Pakistan, media owners along with the advertising fraternity need to thrash out these issues in order to enable the networks to continue to earn their revenues while learning about the importance of upholding ethical and professional standards.

Afia Salam is a freelance journalist. afiasalam@gmail.com