Going ‘Glocal’

What do gombo, hidden cameras and advertorials have in common? Hint: Each is a part of mainstream journalism somewhere in the world.
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What do gombo, hidden cameras and advertorials have in common? Hint: Each is a part of mainstream journalism somewhere in the world.

No, that wasn't a typo — glocalization is a real word, and it's one you may want to know before jumping into the "Jihad vs. McWorld" fray.

A little background: For many scholars and activists, globalization is a dirty word, signifying a homogenizing force that spreads American values like consumption and individualism to every corner of the globe. Others contend that while globalization has certainly facilitated the spread of people, information and technology, it also has inspired people to passionately preserve their local cultures and identities, as is evident in, say, the rapidly growing number of community-specific organizations in California.

Glocalization (a portmanteau combining "local" and "globalization") presents the local and global as forces that feed off each other and compete; it points out that while some processes have certainly contributed to a more "global" globe, globalization hasn't left local cultures by the wayside. In other words, even though you can find the golden arches in 118 countries, that McDonald's on a New Dehli street corner does not serve burgers, at least not beef ones, out of deference to Hindu dietary restrictions.

Therefore, even though globalization has spread Western movies, cable channels and primetime programming, it has not eliminated the need for local media. And the global reach of Western news networks — CNN appears in more than 200 countries — has not seen universal adaptation of Western journalism values.

Many nations, even Western ones, have their own culturally specific standards, implying that a one-size-fits all ethical code in journalism not only does not exist (sorry moral universalists!) but probably wouldn't work. Research shows that from Cameroon to Pakistan and South Africa to Germany, journalism ethics reflect local realities and not global standards.

Herman Wasserman and Shakuntala Rao argued in 2008 that ethical codes in journalism have been "glocalized." They use the case studies of India and South Africa to show that even though journalism ethics worldwide are informed by Western codes, they have been adapted to reflect local attitudes and beliefs.

In India, this is best exemplified by the veritable explosion of hidden cameras for news gathering by magazines and television networks. Western journalists typically go to hidden cameras as a last resort (or during sweeps week), but in India they provide Real World-meets-Nightline programming that exposes corruption on television and computer screens across the country.

The Web site Tehelka.com was the first to adopt the hidden-camera strategy, airing video footage that exposed professional cricket-players accepting bribes and fixing matches. Later, India TV picked up the trend and sent an undercover reporter to Mumbai, where she pretended to be a young starlet eager for success. She recorded Shakti Kapoor, a well-known film personality, offering her a break in the film industry in exchange for sexual favors, and India TV broadcast the footage "almost non-stop for two days," according to Wasserman and Rao.

These are just a few examples reflecting a growing trend of entertainment-style news in India; some argue that, as a result, TV stations and newspapers no longer have a sense of public responsibility. Others have asserted that hidden-camera practices border on entrapment.

"Many argue, however, that hidden camera practices have allowed for more accountability in a system that is thoroughly and completely corrupt," the researchers note. "No critique of the ethics of hidden cameras in India can take away from the immediate gains made by the introduction of such new technologies to the news-gathering mélange."

New legislation is in the works that would ban the use hidden cameras by reporters, but the "sting operations," as they are called, are alive and well for the time being.

Another practice that has exploded in India (in spite of regulation against it) is that of paid news. Newspapers charge money for editorial content masquerading as lifestyle news, and a single front-page photograph of a CEO or business can pay $500,000. The practice has gotten so big so fast that little to nothing has been done to enforce rules prohibiting it.

South Africa shares the paid-news problem: Advertisements disguised as editorial copy have taken over. Although newspapers will mark advertorials with a special heading like "promotion," advertisers take pains to imitate the style and format of the paper, making their content otherwise indistinguishable from the news.

The South African media used U.S., European and Australasian ethical frameworks to inform their own code of journalism ethics. Yet President Thabo Mbeki and South African scholars have encouraged journalists to reintroduce African values into their practice — to report "as Africans."

The African Editors Forum, founded in 2003, reflects this need. It helps professionalize South African journalists and provides a counter-discourse to "the homogenizing influence of Western ethical norms." At its founding conference, editors explored Africa-specific ethical values and articulated key challenges for African journalists, including freedom of speech in the face of intimidation and harassment.

Yet even though The African Editor's Forum presents a counter-discourse to the West, research suggests there are no unified African ethical codes for journalism. Western journalism codes may share similar values, but they have different ways of institutionalizing them. And even within a culture, mores change. Respectable Western news sources don't pay news sources, but might that change?

In "A Product of Their Culture,"Folker Hanusch argues that different journalism practices between countries are culturally determined (as measured by psychologist Geert Hofstede's "cultural dimensions").

For example, Hanusch points out that in the U.S. and countries that are open to uncertainty, the dominant journalism ethics codes would both "easily fit on an A4 page." But in Germany, which avoids uncertainty and generally subscribes to the idea that rules are better left enumerated, the code of ethics would span 24 such pages.

Further illustrating his point, in the U.S. and U.K., one clause is enough to elaborate the "Minimize Harm" principle in coverage of death — in Germany, there are four.

Western countries may differ in the way the rules are spelled out, but in other countries they go unspoken. Such is the case in Pakistan, where in the absence of official government censorship, journalists simply censor themselves.

An article in "South Asian Survey" by then-Princeton University student (and Fulbright scholar) Ramanujan D. Nadadur points to the phenomenon of self-censorship in Pakistani journalism. Nadadur blames the practice on unofficial government controls, the newspaper ownership structure, the legal system and lack of security for journalists.

The government in Pakistan has never imposed official censorship because it has never needed to. Journalists self-censor for a number of reasons, chief among them is government control of advertising. Not only is the government a major advertiser in Pakistani papers, but when it pulls ads, others follow suit.

Plus, Pakistani newspaper owners and editors are often the same person, already a major conflict of interest in the Western model. Although a newspaper owner should (legitimately) be concerned with turning a profit, it is the editor's job to ensure the journalistic integrity of a publication. When the editors are concerned about profit margins, they are unlikely to publish anything that may upset their advertisers.

Another problem for journalists in Pakistan is their isolation from the international community. Even though many of them have bachelor's degrees, few have formal training in journalism. Since their superiors often also lack this training, a lack of education is hardly made up for in on-the-job training.

Nadadur argues that it is possible to create a free and publicly-accountable Pakistani media, and he is hopeful that it can be done with a little cooperation from the international community. He argues that with legal reform, loans to diversify newspaper ownership and the creation of a professional journalist association, the legacy of self-censorship can be overcome.

However, if the experience of Afghanistan is any indication, the formation of a professional journalist association in Pakistan has a seven-digit price tag, and legal reform is unlikely to happen overnight.

But what of self-censorship when journalists are paid for it?

That's the case in Cameroon, where bribery has become a common and accepted practice. In "All of Us Have Taken Gombo,"Lilian Ndangham writes about the pervasiveness of gombo, which she describes as a "metaphor for payments, freebies and rewards solicited by journalists and provided by various news actors to journalists before, during or after events to tilt a news report in favor of a benefactor."

Ndangham, who conducted in-depth interviews with Cameroonian journalists and observed them at a number of events, shows that in the environment of severe economic crisis and rampant corruption, journalists have come to rely on a patronage system. They have the right to free speech and a free press, but choose to exercise it by speaking and printing in favor of their patrons.

Used euphemistically, she writes, gombo means facilitating the work of journalists. It seeks to determine not only what or who is covered, but how it is portrayed. Some reporters solicit gombo before covering an event; others negotiate it before publishing or broadcasting a story. Still others write stories in anticipation of gombo to be rewarded after their publication.

But unlike South African advertorials, gombo stories in no way are identified as paid for. These stories are published with the same authority as genuine news articles.

Gombo also applies to press awards. These awards are paid for by the winners, and therefore change annually depending on who can pay.

"The prevalence of bribery in the country is such that popular slang for bribes is sometimes specific: the police take 'choko,' when they harass motorists and public transport users at road checkpoints; journalists take 'gombo' when they go out to cover events; civil servants take 'brown envelopes' in return for speeding up the processing of documentation at government ministries; while ministers and ruling-party officials hand out ‘electoral gifts' in return for votes during election campaigns," Ndangham laments.

She suggests that the role of the media in holding the government accountable is idealized and may not be applicable in places where journalists don't have the resources and skills necessary to perform this function. In Cameroon, she argues, journalists exercise freedom of expression and publication in an economically sustainable way.

"The result is a pluralistic media that thrives and sustains itself through an institutionalized culture of bribes, self-censorship and compromised integrity."

Regardless of your take on gombo, it appears that the American values of truth, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and public accountability in journalism are anything but universal. Still, one can't help but wonder what the American evening news would be like with routinely hidden cameras ...

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