This article by Polis/LSE Summer School student, Samaya X. Roary

All too often we get caught up in buzz words that sound promising without going deeper and understanding the true depth of what they mean. Transparency and accountability are two such words. Very few of us could tell us what exactly those words mean or how we wish to see them reflected in the realm of media and politics. However, we know we want them, or at least we think we do.

Journalists and politicians alike are amongst the least trusted professionals. This has worsened with the spread of ‘fake news’ and lapses in journalism ethics, such as news articles that don’t disclose that they are sponsored. In the US lobby money appears to have stymied action in Congress on gun reform despite public support as a result of the NRA’s financial influence.

We want the media to be a watchdog for the politicians whom we do not trust – yet we do not trust the media either. This is paradoxical and problematic. At the root of the problem much of the mistrust is embedded in the money they both receive.

The Need For Money

Politicians need the money to be viable contenders and win increasingly expensive election races. According to NYDailyNews it cost $10,476,451 in the 2012 election cycle to run for the U.S. Senate and $1,689,580 to run for the U.S. House of Representative.

News companies are in trouble. With the increasing dominance of advertising revenue by the tech companies and the continued downward trajectories of newspaper sales, the harsh reality is they need money to stay afloat. They are increasingly tempted to cut ethical corners to make ends meet by chasing clickbait or corporate advertorial income.

Businesses, lobbyists and philanthropists invest in news media and politicians as they know that can buy the influence or attention they desire. The NRA gives large contributions to members of congress to win their political support. Uber was allegedly offered favourable coverage by the Evening Standard in return for sponsorship.

It has been said that politicians should be required to wear racing car driver style suits with the badges of all of their donors and contributors.

It has also been said that news outlets should be required to easily and explicitly make note of whether or not their content is sponsored at the beginning of an article. One example of good practice is the news organization Open Democracy that clearly lists all of its supporters on its website.

Age of Mistrust

In the age of mistrust we are actively asking to know more about our media and politicians and their sources of income. But even when we find out these things, what will we do? Will we no longer support the new organization? Will we help get politicians who don’t take dirty money elected? Or will we see transparency as an end in itself? Will we put our hands in our own pockets to fund clear politics and journalism?

As Mary Fitzgerald Editor in Chief of Open Democracy stated in a talk at LSE, “the fastest route to independence is if readers voluntarily give money”. Will you as a reader, a defender of the noble profession of journalism, a person invested in truth, support journalists so they can avoid the influence of corporate cash?

I believe we also have to mobilize and find ways to change the system which supports and thrives off of money at the expense of people. Asking for full disclosure is good, but we should take it a step further.  It might be unrealistic to expect money to play no role in politics and journalism, but if you are asking for transparency and accountability, you also have to support the alternative, ethical sources of support for democracy and the news media.

This article by Polis/LSE Summer School student, Samaya X. Roary