Saturday, April 6, 2013

Commentary: Good, responsible journalism is a necessity in a free and democratic society

In an online post (copied to me) about the media, Ronald Bhola, quotes Professor of Government and the Press, Thomas E. Patterson: 

"Although the news has been compared to a mirror held up to society, it is actually a highly selective portrayal of reality. The news is mainly an account of obtruding events, particularly those which are timely (new or unfolding developments rather than old or static ones), dramatic (striking developments rather than commonplace ones), and compelling (developments that arouse people's concerns and emotions as opposed to remote ones.) 

"These characteristics of the news have a number of origins, not the least of which is that the news is a business. News organizations seek to make a profit, which leads them to prefer news stories that will attract and hold an audience."

Bhola did not provide the context of the quotation he used. What the professor appears to be saying about a "selective portrayal of reality" is that this is what news has become, not that this is what is right. 

The preference for "news stories that attract and hold and audience" is something that has always been part of the practice of good editors. However it does not suggest or mean that news must be distorted or fabricated. 

Bhola makes the point that the emerging pattern of journalism is something that seems to bother the government of Trinidad and Tobago. "This is what the government is ignorant of," he said in reference to the quote from the professor.

Bhola added, "Recently, the Arabic television broadcaster Al Jazeera, now a leading source of news, was criticized for losing its independence, yet Al Jazeera continues to grow.

"The experienes of the past ought to have guided us. There will always be prejudice in some sections of the media, but a government cannot afford to see ghosts behind every post.

"It was John F. Kennedy who once said, that when you ride a tiger you end up in the belly. Is this why the prime minister is scared?"

I cannot speak for the Prime Minister or the government. However I can speak about journalism after 41 years in the business, most of which were as an editor with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), one of the most respected broadcasting organisations in Canada and the world.

Journalism must follow ethical standards and must be guided by the cardinal rules of truth, fairness and balance even where a media organisation has an editorial bias and is highly selective in what it reports. I disagree with any notion that we should allow the media to use the constitutional right of freedom of the press to distort stories and malign anyone.

In an open letter to media in T&T the Executive Director of International Press Institute (IPI), Alison Bethel McKenzie stated:

"Every time a journalist invents a story, fabricates a quote, elevates a personal conviction over a professional curiosity, he betrays ten names on our roll of honour...Every time a journalist maliciously sets out to destroy a reputation, he dishonours these heroes.

"Every time a journalist in a country with a free press protected by law or tradition abuses the freedom by personal vendetta or political manipulation, he betrays all those around the world who struggle with half the freedoms and to liberate journalism."

A media organisation is a business but it also has a civic responsibility to present an accurate picture on whatever it chooses to report.

It is not necessary to indulge in scandal, character assassination, distortion and fabrication to report news stories "that will attract and hold an audience." No professional news organisation should do that.

The point that Al Jazeera continues to grow is because it is highly professional, not because of any bias. The network is unlike Western media and refuses to follow the pack. It has vital sources in places where western media won't go and reports from a perspective that is alien to Western media. That's why it continues to grow.

Indeed Al Jazeera presents to the West a better image of the Arab world than any Western media and exposes audiences to reality while their American counterparts like CNN, FOX and others see the world only through their ethnocentric lenses. An analysis would show that the reason for Al Jazeera's rapid growth is the quality of its journalism rather than any bias.

My point is that good and professional journalism that follows the industry's ethical standards can deliver a profit and there is no need for sensationalism or bias. 

News is about our world in progress; people want to know what is happening and they need media to report and interpret events fairly, truthfully and in a balanced manner so they would understand all the issues that affect their lives and make informed decisions. Individual organisations can be selective in what they report but they have an obligation to follow the industry best practices.

The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists demands that we test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. 

It addition it states: 
"Deliberate distortion is never permissible...Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing...Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability."

That is the responsibility media must undertake. Unfortunately Trinidad and Tobago is not the only place where media appears to be presenting THEIR image of reality rather that what is really happening.

That is a sad state of affairs and a betrayal of the trust placed in media by any state that affords media a guarantee of freedom.

Jai Parasram.

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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