Media, McDonald’s and pranks in Mongolia

Last week, Mongol TV, Mongolia’s most publicity savvy television station, pulled a pricey prank on its competitors in television and print media. This, about a week after the CEO of the station was featured in The Hollywood Reporter. She was profiled for being a champion of a more transparent, rule-abiding, and professional media in Mongolia. Mongol TV wanted to keep the tide rolling in a concerted effort to make an international name for itself as a stand-out in Mongolian media.

Mongol TV generated a fake story about a Mongolian company opening up a McDonald’s franchise in the heart of the city. This expensive prank roped in the hopes of expats, repats and well-traveled locals. They came up with a hokey opening weekend special of McMutton burgers and goat’s milk milkshakes to cater to the tastes of the new audience. According to a Reuters correspondent who blogged about the hoax, Mongol TV says they shelled out nearly 4,000 USD to pull off the prank.

All nine online, print and television outlets that were pitched ran the story, charging between 107 and 599 USD to feature the ad, according to figures shared in their report exposing the hoax. The news of McDonald’s entering the Mongolian market was proposed by a Mongol TV journalist posing as a public relations representative for “Wholesome Foods Mongolia”, but many news outlets ran it like a news piece.

Rumors of McDonald’s in Mongolia come and go over the years. Many see McDonald’s in Mongolia as a benchmark in economic development, a sign of truly being able to embrace Western capitalism and to be embraced in return by foreign corporations. Others look at the detrimental health and environmental effects of the onslaught of imported American fast food, and the issue sparks debate each time it’s raised. Reports of the world’s most iconic American fast food chain finally setting up camp would indeed be newsworthy. The opening of Mongolia’s first Kentucky Fried Chicken made international headlines in a way that its predecessor, Kenny Roger’s Roasters, did not and now they’re opening a second location with rumors of adding Mongolia’s first drive-thru window. As the number of foreign coffee shop franchises in the city grow, so too may the foreign fast food chains.

While the lack of fact-checking that took place in the running of the McDonald’s story seems somewhat alarming, a larger problem lies in the majority of Mongolian media outlets running paid advertisements as features without identifying them as paid promotion. Smaller websites picked up on the story and it was also force fed through social media by employees of Mongol TV. Paid features are a common practice here, so common that many media consumers assume that the majority of stories reported are driven by dollars. Companies buy space and airtime for featured interviews intended to promote their projects, and many media outlets are said to expect payment for the coverage. Those lobbying for policy can pay for coverage of agendas that suit their interests. It’s up to the journalistic integrity of a paper, website or television station to decide how they will present the promotion to the public, but the media has waffled here. In simplified terms, the prevalence of the practice challenges the notion of a free press and represents an industry driven by profit and not the pursuit of public interest. Not adopting a policy of identifying advertorials (advertisement editorials) as paid promotional features will continue to compromise consumer trust.

The problem isn’t a purely Mongolian one, despite Mongol TV’s rallying cry. News outlets all over the world have faced criticism for decades for running press releases as news, and outrage about falsified news stories by journalists have cost the world’s most renowned newspapers their reputation and tremendous legal costs. Media analysts are also looking critically at major websites providing content generated by non-professionals, authors who are unpaid, and lacking journalistic training or prior professional experience in publishing. Many of these websites post content intended to drive website clicks and social media sharing, all in an effort to present numbers on audience reach to potential advertisers. Voices that were once confined to the opinion and editorial pages of newspapers have become lead stories thanks to the democratization of modern media. It would be naive to think that with all these new developments, and a frenzied rush to create content in a minute-by-minute reporting environment, that businesses haven’t been able to buy headlines with less scrutiny than before.

Without a doubt, change is needed - not just here, but everywhere. Does Mongolian media need a publicity stunt conceived by a foreign consultant for a television station driven by ratings to fuel that change, or can the change come from within the journalistic community? The change required to provide local journalists with the training, salaries, time and resources to establish new standards in reporting are tremendous - not impossible, but a far cry from what’s available to them now. To suggest that Mongolian journalists and editors aren’t eager for change is not only unfair, but inaccurate. Labeling the running of the McDonald’s story as corruption across the board trivializes the real stories of corruption in Mongolia, stories that call for serious attention.

While Mongolia may never end up with a McDonald’s, it’s well on its way to acquiring American-style sensational reporting by its major television networks. Mongol TV is leading the way in daytime television that looks identical to popular morning news shows on Western networks, where the focus isn’t on the public interest, but on nurturing the public’s spending habits. The objective of these morning talk shows is to create a loyal audience of consumers of fashion, food, and other trends to support advertisers. Other stations are working towards the same goal, but Mongol TV’s financial investment in developing this kind of programming to meet Western standards reportedly surpasses that of other local stations.

I’m not sure that Mongol TV’s paying the competition to run their McDonald’s story can be considered a productive investment in the strengthening of Mongolian media. Perhaps a 4,000 USD investment in supporting the burgeoning, united efforts of the nation’s media to create progressive changes to access, transparency and ethics might have been better spent and less divisive. Only time will tell, and hopefully there will be more journalists - with ethical integrity and the support that quality reporting requires - to tell the story.

Published in The UB Post on December 16, 2013.


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