Newspapers need to explore new protocol to protect readers against unscrupulous advertising scamsters
Newspapers have often been accused of not being objective. Yet, the truth is that objectivity has never really been universally accepted as the major guiding principle for journalists.
The term seems to have stood more for a reflection of impartiality, but the demand has been for something bigger, something better.
Accuracy? Fairness? Balance? All these were preferable to the notion of objectivity. Years ago, at the height of the liberation struggle, black journalists were often accused of not being objective. But they had stated their position clearly: they were, first of all, black before they were journalists. And that is where they directed their focus.
As much as white journalists were comfortable being white and privileged, it was an untenable position for journalism as a profession.
Is accuracy fairness? Or is fairness balancing all sides of a story, making it believable and credible? Or is it balancing economic values with news values? It was Thomas Jefferson who once declared: "Advertisements contain the only truth to be relied upon in a newspaper."
One of our readers, who has been consistently complaining about misleading advertisements that offer incredible returns for investors, would disagree. These advertisements offer people such great returns that it is clear they cannot be true. He calls the advertisers "Serial Scamsters". Their operations were featured in Carte Blanche. Two of them advertised in the Sunday Times.
The Sunday Times and other Avusa publications have been running a caution on their pages warning people to be extra careful when considering investing their money. This reader believes that is not enough, that our newspapers have the responsibility to protect the people who buy our products. This might well be so.
I have previously made the point that no editor can look at every bit of information that makes the newspaper's pages.
Many readers joined the fray, arguing that editors are therefore giving up their responsibility if they do not do so - particularly if they allow advertisers to say whatever they wish without any real pre-publication checks.
The practical situation is however, different: what these readers are asking is for editors to read and approve everything that goes into their newspapers. They believe editors must be held responsible for what appears in their publications - including the content of advertising.
This is not practical, and it has sometimes happened that advertising copy is prepared and submitted ready by an advertising agency.
Editors, publishers and owners can be held jointly and severally liable for the content of an advertisement in their newspapers, together with the organisations which placed the advertisements.
Editors normally would more likely be vigilant when advertisements resemble editorial content - what are known as advertorials - because readers could easily mistake them for editorial copy. Editorial pages are turf that editors protect, and rightfully so.
What about classified advertising? What checks should be put into place to ensure copy does not cross the line? How can editors ensure that the advertisements are honest, and that readers can safely respond to them? Or that the products sold through these advertisements are indeed what they are purport to be?
The Advertising Standards Authority was set up to investigate false representation in advertising, but investigations are generally based on consumer or competitor complaints.
Someone once said that journalism defends the future against the past, and that it is not the business of the journalist to distinguish between the significant and the worthless.
This is a rather extreme view - journalists do carry a great weight of responsibility to sift the wheat from the chaff. In defending the rights of the people, journalists take on the responsibility which citizens cannot carry out themselves other than during an election - which comes only every five years or so. They need to remind people of government follies of the past and their consequences on our present and future.
It seems to me, however, that a new protocol needs to be explored to deal with the kind of issues that our reader has identified. We can no longer sit back and say: ''readers beware'', and think that this is enough.