Sunday, April 7, 2013

Guest commentary: A few media myths

by SUZANNE MILLS. Reproduced unedited from NEWSDAY Sunday, April 7 2013

The media in TT are simply doing what they are mandated to do, the MSJ́s David Abdulah recently asserted after the Prime Minister chastised the media for ignoring the successes of her government and for publicising mainly the shortcomings. 

What are the media mandated to do and by whom? 

As far I know the media have no mandate to be the guardians of democracy though they have the right if they so desire to become a watchdog or any other type of creature of their creation. Freedom of the press is the freedom to publish and the freedom not to publish.

The media possess more than one role, as is evident in its content which can range from (but not necessarily include) current events, crossword puzzles, comic strips, games, obituaries, features, human interest stories, advertisements. The objective can be simply to entertain. Most importantly, the media want to make money and the greater boundaries on press freedom are often outlined not by the politicians but by management and advertisers.

It is also true that we cannot talk about media unless we include the new media-the social networks, the blogs, the online press and the websites. Their “mandate” cannot be defined - they exist in a world of boundless possibilities and permutations, where information is updated by the instant and the purpose of that fast and free communication is virtually limitless. 

At times, new media can propel a revolution; quite often the media are used for the mere purpose of self promotion the subject of the news is the writer of it.

I also want to debunk the notion that the media must be balanced and fair. Each media establishment may adopt its particular slant and none is obliged to give more than one side of the story. 

Objectivity is a laudable goal, but it is not a mandate. We often underestimate the intelligence of the audience who quickly arrive at the conclusion that this blog or TV station is pro government or this radio station is anti establishment and decide whether to tune them out or whether to read, listen or watch various shows and stories to get a spectrum of views.

We also assume that like children the traditional media (and the new) can lead a populace where they may, that readers, listeners and viewers will react in singular fashion to a story or to a tweet. 

A fine example of the contrary has been the PḞs refusal to fire Minister of Security Jack Warner. When polled by the media, half the people in the street were of the opinion that she should dismiss Warner while the other half thought she should wait for official confirmation of the news, not depend on the media version. Readers, viewers and listeners are not a homogenous group and they can come to quite disparate conclusions.

The media (traditional more than new) however are obliged to respect certain guidelines. They cannot report the name of a rape victim. The court often orders media houses not to disclose the identity of a witness. They cannot defame, unless they are prepared to pay the price. 

If they expect to enjoy credibility they have to get the story right. One of the questions you are asked to ponder in journalism school if an article is potentially defamatory is whether the subject will sue. It sounds cynical and it is. Many people do not have the resources to sue. Others are disinclined to go through a lengthy court process and thus let the libel slide. 

Clearly Minister Anil Roberts was not one of those people. He thought he had been lowered in the opinion of right minded citizens by the story which claimed he was being referred by the Integrity Commission to the DPP for investigation and he decided to take legal action.

We cannot take that right away from him because he is a minister. But should he have sued? From a political point of view, it might have been better strategy to have corrected the story and have let the matter end there. 

One is also still at pains to understand why the Prime Minister took the risk she did when she criticised the media. When she was in Opposition she was the darling of the press and would never have used the term rogue element (why is everybody now a rogue?) She should have known that the relationship would change when she became Prime Minister.

I think the Anil Roberts/DPP story provides an opportunity for both sides of the tussle to engage in reflection. 

The media will get it wrong and should correct their errors and accept that these have consequences, and government must ponder its response to the article, and devise a non confrontational plan for promoting its achievements. The media have no mandate to keep the government in check but neither are they obliged to promote government́s agenda.

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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