Thursday, March 28, 2013

Commentary: Let's not lose focus on the role of media in a democracy

It's easy to lose focus. And the reaction to Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar's statement that there are "rogue elements" in the media demonstrates just that.

Speaking at a political meeting Monday the PM and Political Leader of the United National Congress (UNC) called on the Media Association of Trinidad and Tobago (MATT) to "not only be a watchdog body in defence of journalists, but also hold some of its members accountable for either wilfully or unwittingly misinforming the society."

She was referring to some recent local media reports that have been inaccurate and in some cases downright wrong and malicious. However, she was careful to preface her comments by stating that she was not at war with the media or picking a fight. 
She was, of course, bothered that some reports have been less than fair and truthful.

Persad-Bissessar said, "We need to take the profession of reporting to newer heights of personal and institutional professionalism and excellence" and added that the duty of the media goes beyond its role to inform and educate. "It is equally the duty of the media to be fair and to be truthful," she said.

She acknowledged the role of media by stating, "The fourth estate as journalism is in itself a political force in any democracy, and its integrity is based on being fair and unbiased." 

Read the story:
Kamla slams "rogue" elements in the media; reaffirms support for media

All of this had to do with a front page Guardian report about Anil Roberts being under investigation, which is not true. Roberts raised the issue first and announced that he was taking legal action against the writer of the article, her editor and the newspaper. 

That is his right in a free and democratic society as is the right of the media to publish without fear or intimidation. But what if the reporter and the paper erred?

The evidence in the public domain suggests that the Guardian got the story wrong since the Integrity Commission confirmed that Roberts was not under investigation. Roberts also claimed that the reporter used a direct quote from him although she never spoke with him.

In response to that the reporter told the media the comment from Roberts that she used "was solicited by one of her editors" and inserted into her story in the interest of "balance and fairness, and that is a normal practice".

However, she said she had called Roberts "several times" and he didn't respond. Yet she inserted a direct quote from him in her story while admitting she never spoke with the man.

And on Monday night Roberts produced a document which he said was from the reporter's colleague. That document, according to Roberts, stated that Roberts never gave a comment other than what he said about a robbery at the home of PNM legislator Colm Imbert.

So first she got the story wrong, inserted a comment from Roberts although she admitted that she never spoke to him and the man who is supposed to have "solicited" the comment has denied ever talking to Roberts about the matter.

If you consider all this data objectively you would have to conclude that the reporter erred. Why then is everybody chastising the Prime Minister for just asking MATT to police its own to make sure that journalists follow the ethical rule of truth, fairness and balance in reporting?

Why is the MATT president "perplexed" by the Prime Minister's statements? Suzanne Shepherd should know better. Nobody was "targeting" any reporter; people were saying the report was wrong and that reporters in general should follow the ethics and rules of the profession. 

Freedom of the press does not mean freedom to be irresponsible and freedom to distort reality. Everybody keeps talking about freedom of the press and what the constitution says. We all know what it says. However we must stop behaving as if that "freedom" is without limit. Does it give the media a licence to make up news and print stories without following the most basic rules of the profession? 

Does that freedom give the media the right to malign people without verifiable data? Does it give the media the right to fabricate stories and tell lies?

For now, the evidence in the public domain shows the paper was wrong and that it might have distorted or fabricated some of the information used in the story. If it goes to court we'll learn a lot more and perhaps sort out this business of media freedom and responsibility. 

Let's not lose focus on what is the real issue. No one is intimidating or targeting a reporter or challenging her constitutional right to freedom to write and publish. What people are asking is that this reporter and others working in the media follow the most basic rules of their profession.

The code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists states in part:

"Seek Truth and Report It...
"Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.
"Journalists should:
— Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.
— Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing...
— Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context."

Read the CODE

Journalism is an essential part of democracy. Let's do it right and be the watchdogs we should be. But please, let us not be thin skinned and cry foul every time we make a mistake and someone points it out.

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Jai & Sero

Jai & Sero

Our family at home in Toronto 2008

Our family at home in Toronto 2008
Amit, Heather, Fuzz, Aj, Jiv, Shiva, Rampa, Sero, Jai