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On the Corporate Social Responsibility of the Media in the Electoral Process

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Leadership & Transparency
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By Antonio Vives

In the midst of an intense and acrimonious electoral process in the U.S., it is time to consider the corporate social responsibility of the media -- printed, social and broadcast -- beyond their traditional social and environmental responsibility as a corporate entity.  We will only address the key issue of the responsibility of their products in this process: news, discussion, awareness.

We, listeners, viewers, readers, are not only the object of their existence, of their products, but we are also their customers; we are the ones who, in general, pay for their costs; we are the ones who buy the products and services that are advertised in most of the communications.   What advertisers pay the media is directly or indirectly included in the prices of goods and services that we buy.  We, media users, fund most of the commercial media (with some exceptions).  We are their major stakeholder.  We, media users, have the right to receive responsible products.

What are responsible products in the media in this context?:  News that are well researched, balanced and clearly presented; opinions and discussions that are presented with due analysis and justification and that provide opportunity to consider different points of view and raise awareness about the most important issues for the future of society; reports that provide the necessary background to understand those points of view, their implications and their consequences.

The current electoral process has highlighted that a vast portion of the electorate has very little knowledge of the most important issues that affect their future, the possible alternatives and the impact of the different approaches taken to consider them.  This may have always been the case, but this electoral process has put under the limelight that large portions of the electorate are rather naïve, gullible, incapable of analyzing the consequences of the electoral promises. They seem to believe almost anything without questioning.  And this has put a strong focus on the responsibility of media products.

There are several reasons why any entity has responsibilities and one of them is derived from power.  Power brings responsibilities to use that power responsibly.  Media exists because of society, and society has conferred it large power.  Media must utilize this power to further the wellbeing of that society in which it operates.  And in the current electoral process it must exercise this power responsibly to provide it with instruments to make informed decisions.  Ideally, this power should be exercised impartially, without biases, although this is extremely hard to achieve in practice, not all the issues lend themselves to analytical, reasoned solutions, many are moral issues, many have to be dealt with very incomplete information.  Furthermore, some media are financially controlled by groups which want to promote their special interests. But at the very least media must make the effort to identify the issues which are most relevant and provide the necessary information for a discussion.

As an example, one candidate can promise debt and tax reductions and increases in expenditures without flinching, and a large part of the electorate buys it. It is it what they want to hear.  They do not concern themselves with the “vagaries” of the fundamental laws of arithmetics and economics that make that promise totally impossible.  Another candidate can promise free college tuition for all, which obviously will endear him or her with the electorate without it realizing the negative consequences of expending resources on unqualified students, the impact on the quality of research and teaching, the potential unbalances in the supply and demand of professions, the misallocation of resources, or the need to increase government revenues from somewhere.  Another one may offer free health care to all without realizing the abuses that this system will encourage and the consequent drop in the quality of attention in the medium term.  Many politicians offer a free lunch and the electorate likes free stuff.

The media has the responsibility to promote discussion and analysis of these issues as there is an obvious “market failure” in the market for electoral promises.  Consumers need consumer protection on this in the same way consumers need protection against irresponsible products like predatory lending, unhealthy products, unsafe driving cars, and the like.  Can the government regulate the marker for political spin?  Obviously not!   Can the media do it?  No, but it can and should make an educated and balanced contribution to the discussion of the issues. And here we are not advocating that media take one position or another, this would make their products even more irresponsible.

And unfortunately there is another “market failure” in the electoral market and it refers to the difficulty of the market in deciding on the “right” products. As in the consumer market we may prefer sweet, fattening foods to healthy products, in the market for politics we may prefer light stuff, gossip, entertainment, anecdote more than in-depth discussion of relevant issues.  We have enough problems with a complicated life as is, to complicate it further with having to deal with complex electoral issues. In this case the public has the choice to choose its own poison.  Again, this market failure cannot and should not be regulated by the government but again, the media has the power, the capabilities and social responsibilities to intervene and select the relevant issues and the relevant format for the discussion and analysis.

The major constraint in the media is time and space and all entities would like to make the most out of scarce resources.  They may prefer to use them to feature programs, news, discussions that will have a higher audience (the metric for revenue).  They need to consider the impact on the bottom line of presenting one issue versus another.  A panel discussing the personal escapades of some politician may bring a larger audience than one discussing the implications of a proposal to slap a tariff on Chinese goods.  And these institutions, being for profit, make “rational economic decisions” and schedule programs with the aim of increasing audience.  This is particularly exacerbated by the competition form social media, which are not subject to some of the restrictive rules.

But a responsible media, assuming its responsibility towards society, must not only ask what will be the impact on the bottom line, but also what is the contribution of the time and space devoted to the issue in the advancement of society´s well-being.  Society is their major stakeholder.  Here is where there will most likely be a trade-off between profits and society’s well-being, and that is why these decisions are not straightforward.

In the electoral process, responsible media companies have the responsibility to select the issues that are more relevant for the long-term future of society and to discuss them in their context analyzing the consequences, to enable the public to make informed judgments.  This has always been a responsibility of media toward society, but in this peculiar and tense electoral process this responsibility is further highlighted.

This is not to say that this is not the case right now. Many media outlets strive to do so, but there are many more that sacrifice rigor and completeness for the sake of a larger audience, compounded by a seemingly endless supply of pseudo experts.  According to the Washington Post (June 5, 2016), 602 pundits appeared on the three major cable news channels over an eight-day span.  And the ones I had a chance to watch were very, very lightweight with little if any analysis.

And while we are it, given that we are discussing media´s societal responsibility it would also be desirable to allocate space and time to the discussion of the environmental and social implications of the proposals in this electoral process.

Media has a responsibility to give society, which is their raison d’etre, responsible products.  Society deserves responsible products, and as in many other cases, society does not know who provides responsible products.  Maybe one day we will have responsibility ratings for the media.

Image credit: Flickr/Tom Woodward

Antonio Vives is Principal Associate at Cumpetere, a CSR consulting firm.  He is also Consulting Professor at Stanford University and a member of the Sustainability Advisory Panel at several multinationals.  He was the Sustainable Development Manager at the Inter-American Development Bank. Has published seven books, dozens of academic papers and more that 300 blog articles on CSR and financial management (www.cumpetere.blogsport.com) and is a frequent speaker at conferences and universities. Holds a Ph.D. in Corporate Finance from Carnegie Mellon University. Follow him on twitter @tonyvives

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