Sunday, 23 March 2014

Understanding the Meaning of Journalistic Independence

In democratic societies, part of the media’s role is supposed to be to inform people so that they can make educated choices. In such political systems, the media act on behalf of the common people to ensure that politicians do their job. The media, therefore, include a diversity of voices and political opinions, and seeks a fair balance of news and views.

The media, however, are not necessarily impartial reporters of events. Indeed, impartiality may be the exception rather than the rule. America’s highly profitable Fox News channel (part of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation) is unafraid to say what it thinks and is prospering as a result. Other examples include the Al-Jazeera television network, with its unabashed support for Arab reform, and The Economist news magazine, which has promoted free trade, internationalism and minimum interference from government since 1843.

As The Economist itself has noted, the idea that journalists should be “impartial” in reporting news is, in fact, a relatively recent one, and finds most support in America. In Europe, the magazine notes that overt partisanship in newspapers is widespread and state-run television channels often have party allegiances.

Last weekend, in a Sunday Guardian interview, Minister of Food Production Devant Maharaj said reporters should declare their political affiliations. SHEREEN ALI asked freelance journalist Wesley Gibbings about this and related issues. Wesley Gibbings is the founding president of the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers, deputy convenor of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange and member of the Steering Committee of the Global Forum for Media Development.

Q: Food Production Minister Devant Maharaj recently called for reporters to declare their political affiliations. He says he was supporting Independent Senator Viera who said that media individuals or businesses with political agendas should be honest with the population and declare their hand. Do you agree?

Should journalists be open about any financial interests or political leanings that may colour their reporting? And should journalists, therefore, also provide much more detail on their source material, to enable their audiences to evaluate the strength of their stories?

A: Both Minister Maharaj, who should know better because he has some knowledge of how media work, and Senator Viera are failing to make a distinction between media houses and the journalists who work within them. They also appear not to have considered the fact that journalistic content, particularly in broadcast media, constitutes but one component of overall media output.

What obtains in some countries is that some media houses, the print media in particular, exercise the option to declare their editorial positions or support or lack of support for political parties, and particular public policy issues. I cannot think of a single situation (in a democratic country of course, because autocratic states are a different thing altogether) in which individual journalists have systematically declared their political preferences or allegiances as a matter of choice or obligation.

Indeed, most journalists vote at election time and, therefore, express a political preference on that occasion. But does this challenge someone’s independence of thought? Mr Viera, for instance, is an independent senator. If he voted in the last election, didn’t he express a political preference? Using his logic, he should perhaps be telling the country and the world how he voted in the last election.

It is said that the role of the media is to inform, entertain and educate. But for many media, their role has also been to influence and to persuade. Should a mass medium strive to be impartial in order to give the fullest coverage possible to its audience? Or should it be free to embrace a narrower, more partisan approach? Should respectable news organisations strive to be fair and balanced, or not?
The value of media output as a whole needs to be discussed alongside the work of journalists because they are not the same. Content in the mass media is a mish-mash of entertainment, educational material, satire, commentary, opinion, analysis and news. When it comes to news, there is no option but to be fair, balanced and accurate.

Columnists and other content providers in both print and broadcast media are not necessarily under any obligation to meet the same standards, though this would be useful. A newspaper columnist or talk show host is fully entitled to state his or her personal view on public issues.

This represents opinion. Opinion has the characteristic of freely expressing someone’s preference or allegiance or conviction. In free societies, the ability to do so is sacred. It is a pillar of freedom of expression. The opinion leaders, satirists, comedians, artists all have a role to play in mass media.

Do you think there is political bias in the mass media in T&T? If yes, to what degree? What about the role of state-owned media?
For the most part, I do not believe that there is institutionalised, systematic political bias in the local media. It might be that some operatives in the State media are of the belief that it is their role to facilitate the use of content in support of whichever party is in power. This, of course, is wrong and is an abuse of their positions but is something that has spanned political administrations, including the current one. Hopefully, this will change in the future.

Some media operatives do indeed have difficulty containing their political enthusiasm and this sometimes, but not always, has an impact on journalistic content. It is the role of enlightened media leadership to weed this out, because it destroys the credibility of the media house both as a commercial enterprise and as a place where people go to derive the truth about our society. The state media are particularly problematic when it comes to this. I have not seen the situation change over the years. But it needs to change.

Do privately-owned media houses, as private businesses, have any duty to make their editorial policies public? Shouldn’t this be up to the media owners?
Newspapers in fact make their editorial positions, as an institution, public via their editorials. But this does not mean that a news editor necessarily sends reporters out in the field with the injunction to find information to support such positions post facto. In fact, my experience is that positions on public issues are usually developed following a period of journalistic inquiry and not the other way around. Nothing is wrong with that.

What is the obligation of our media workers in a small island where we already have a culture that is politically incestuous—and at times volatile? How should media workers negotiate the many issues and potential conflicts? What should guide them?
I am a believer in codes of professional conduct for journalists and stringent application of them by media employers. Not all my colleagues agree this should be a function of the industrial relations process, but I think it should be. Such values are non-negotiable and not subject to cultural specificity. Codes of conduct supported by strong editors are an unbeatable combination. Through this, journalists can best negotiate pretty overwhelming commercial and political forces.

Can individuals or even the media ever hope to be truly objective, as the very selection and framing of media content involves subjective value judgments? How can ideals of objectivity be encouraged or maintained?
This is a very old and interesting discussion, settlement of which I am yet to see. But it is a pervasive consideration spanning a wide range of professional pursuits. The key to it though is freedom of expression. Through freedom of expression all ideas contend. All interpretations of reality are placed in the public domain. This is how it ought to be—whatever we think of the subjectivity or objectivity of substantive content. Freedom has many responsibilities, but in order to be responsible you often need to be free.

Journalists cannot be free to be responsible if there is an environment in which information is suppressed or people are punished in one way or the other for the views they express. Such a situation promotes one-sidedness and tacit bias.

Trinidad and Tobago Guardian

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