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CORPORATE RESPONSIBILITY - PROMINENT JOURNALISTS DRAW A LINE BETWEEN NEWS AND WHAT THEY CALL "FREE ADVERTISING"

When is news not news?

JOURNALISTS are traditionally sceptical about good news. Firstly, positive news stories often have the whiff of advertising about them. Secondly, no company runs smoothly all the time and journalists remember that the company sending the press release on its sponsorship activities today refused to offer a comment on something unfavourable a few months ago. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, good news does not sell newspapers.

JOURNALISTS are traditionally sceptical about good news. Firstly, positive news stories often have the whiff of advertising about them. Secondly, no company runs smoothly all the time and journalists remember that the company sending the press release on its sponsorship activities today refused to offer a comment on something unfavourable a few months ago. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, good news does not sell newspapers.

Some journalists feel that in return for covering a company's involvement in charitable and fund-raising events, companies should be more open to investigative reporting - and criticism. Others think corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a completely illegitimate form of news making. The Slovak Spectator asked several prominent Slovak journalists about how their publications deal with Corporate Social Responsibility.


The Slovak Spectator (TSS): What is the approach of your newspaper to publishing feel-good stories, such as on corporate philanthropy, sponsorships, community projects and employee care? Do you consider such stories advertisements? What are the criteria for deciding whether they are ads or real news?

Martin M Šimečka (MŠ), editor-in-chief of the daily SME: To a large extent we consider information about charity events to be ads. SME reporters have guidelines about writing stories that could look like paid for advertisements.

On the other hand, in our new supplement, People and Society, we do, under certain circumstances, publish company and business' people's names in relation to activities and events with charitable intentions.

There are several reasons why the media is extremely careful when writing about company charity events. The first and main reason is a certain traditional suspicion between independent media outlets and companies. Private enterprise in Slovakia was created during the 1990s, and in the eyes of the media and the public there is a connection between private enterprise and very non-transparent privatization. There are some very suspicious things that have still not been cleared up, including cases involving large and successful Slovak companies.

The second reason is that companies and their PR departments often do not understand that media outlets are very sensitive to any form of coercion - from offers of various benefits for journalists to threats to stop advertising if an article critical of the company appears. SME has had several bad experiences in this regard.

The third reason for being careful is that companies are very welcoming when it comes to positive news but answer investigative questions only very formally or not at all. There is a clear imbalance in their relationship to the media.


Nora Slišková (NS), deputy editor-in-chief of the Pravda daily: Pravda applies the same rules to these topics as to any other types of news stories. We make no exceptions.

An article is not an advertisement if the desk considers the topic to be important and interesting to readers. It would be considered an advertisement if the initiative came only from the company's side.

In certain types of articles, such as assisting in the Tatras, helping children, or the victims of a tsunami, we publish account numbers, which we do not consider hidden advertisements but additional information for the reader. We are willing to support some events in the form of non-paid for "advertisements".


Ivan Podstupka (IP), deputy editor-in-chief of Hospodárske noviny business daily: In my opinion, CSR has a wider meaning than you describe in the question. I understand it as optimizing a business from the human, social and environmental points of view and supporting similar goals in the wider society. We are interested in CSR as I describe it. We publish articles giving information, with analysis and provide a variety of opinions.

We publish stories about concrete sponsorship only in the wider context, for example, in an article about a company, school or event.


TSS: Some people say the media should publish articles about CSR events, even though they may be hidden ads, because they could encourage more companies to engage in such activities and benefit society as a result. What is your opinion?

MŠ (SME): This opinion is a bit utopian. The media cannot take such an approach without being confident that it is justified. I think it would be better for firms to start being open with the media even if they do not feel comfortable with it. This way, mutual trust and respect can be created and that would bring a change to the current stereotype.


NS (Pravda): I cannot agree. Serious news reporting has its rules and in no way does it allow hidden advertising. Such advertising is not transparent and has no rules. Imagine if we got 10 such stories in a month, which of them would we publish? If there is a hidden advertisement in one article, why not in the second, third or tenth?


IP (Hospodárske noviny): The question is: Do the sponsors really want to help or are they doing it because they want the publicity? If they really care that much they can pay for an advertisement.

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