Should the media be impartial and responsible?

Receiving a cheque for the Camp Street Avenue

An edited version of the feature address at the Trinidad and Tobago Publishers and Broadcasters Association Annual Dinner and Awards for Media Excellence held on November 26, 2004, at the Hilton hotel, Trinidad.(Excerpt)

I want to advance two propositions tonight. The first is that ours is one of the most challenging and exciting jobs in the world that gives great scope to energy and talent. We can play a useful role in the evolution of our countries if we have the ability and the imagination. The second is that given the difficulties facing our young, developing countries, both of them in the early stages of nation-building, which range from ethnic division to drug trafficking to external threats, perhaps more acute in Guyana than here, we will inevitably experience some degree of pressure in performing our jobs as journalists if we rise to the challenges facing us.

David de Caires with from left, David Granger, Winston McGowan and James Rose at the launching of their book Themes in African Guyanese History

The topic tonight is ‘Should the media be impartial and responsible?’ One might describe this as a rhetorical question as a negative answer would at least be highly controversial. However a distinction must be drawn. In one’s primary capacity as a reporter of news one must be objective, impartial and as accurate as possible. There is no room for the injection of opinion. Someone reading a news item in a newspaper or listening to it on radio or television should have no idea what the reporter thinks about the story. It is the reporter’s job to tell the story, not to let people have his opinion on it. Tell the tale properly and let people form their own opinion; never try to tell them what to think. It is patronising and highly unprofessional.

David and Doreen de Caires (third and fourth left) receive awards at the awards ceremony of the Guyana Press Association along with (from left) Orin Davidson, Han Granger, Ken Moore and Linda Rutherford (early 1990s)

By contrast, one is entitled to express one’s opinion forthrightly in editorials and to allow others to express their opinion in columns or letters to the editor or in discussion programmes.   Newspapers   and   broadcasters throughout the world have always done this, and in newspapers in particular it helps to define their character. Some newspapers had aiso pioneered front-page comments on topical issues, sometimes hard hitting. In the case of the publisher William Randolph Hearst, for example, these comments were often signed by him and were sometimes very contentious. But readers must always be told clearly that what they are reading or listening to is opinion and not fact and it must be clearly labelled as such. A well known editor of the Manchester Guardian had captured the distinction in a famous aphorism, “Comment is free, facts are sacred.”

A free press is an indispensable bulwark of an open, democratic society. Without it, democracy will not survive. But my own experience in Guyana has taught me how important the concomitant responsibility is that we should do our job professionally. Given the amount of sloppy, incompetent and tendentious reporting that exists, far from being triumphalist about our role we should be acutely aware of the damage that can be done. As has been well said, a microphone in inexperienced or biased hands can be more deadly than a machine gun. The chilling example of Rwanda when Radio Mille Collines played an overt role in the genocide reminds us that there is an end result, sometimes catastrophic, to careless and inflammatory reporting. Some of the journalists involved were later prosecuted and convicted. More recently, the radio station in the Ivory Coast was used to propagate hate speech. In multi-ethnic societies like Trinidad and Guyana it is our duty to report with care on sensitive issues. Don’t ignore them but get them right. For example instead of a subeditor requiring one supporting witness to an event involving inter-ethnic hostility seek two. Factor in the propensity of people to exaggerate and to spread rumours where their emotions are involved. One needs to get to the stage where one is acutely conscious of the damage that can be done by inaccurate reporting, both to the reputation of individuals and to society as a whole, and to have a corresponding anxiety about getting it right. Tonight, therefore, I want to discuss with you our responsibility as media persons in the widest sense of that word. Properly understood that must include equipping ourselves to do the job efficiently and understanding the nature of our profession and what is expected of us.

In that context, I would like to deal with the first proposition that I raised above, namely that the profession of journalism is badly underrated, including by ourselves. It can, I submit, be as challenging as any of the other professions. So much depends on what as journalists and editors we bring to it and what we hope to achieve. Even the most apparently mundane beats, like covering the magistrates’ courts and the hospitals, can be full of human interest. While retaining your professional approach try to make the characters come to life with little descriptive touches. Every day in these institutions there are snapshots of life, be it the police court or the rent court or the emergency ward. We can’t all be Naipauls or Dickenses but we can try to see these everyday events with a human eye, bring some level of understanding and compassion to them, humanise the story. You may be surprised what you can achieve with some effort. If you are covering education, the environment, business or politics do some background reading. Try to get a grasp of your subject that goes beyond your day-to-day experience. It will help you to ask the right questions at interviews and press conferences and to develop your story. If over the years with the experience you acquire and the reading you undertake, you become knowledgeable, the quality of your journalism can help to elucidate, to give context and shed light.

A truly good and professionally written newspaper is a blessing to any country in which it exists, helping to inculcate attitudes of rationality, moderation, respect and compromise. It is something we must all aim for. Dare one say it, it could even play a constructive role in the evolution of the society and the building of the nation, as was indeed the case with two of the most famous English newspapers. The Times, once known as the Thunderer, which played a role, in its early years, in the politics of the day was a vehicle for letters from men of affairs and the Manchester Guardian (now the Guardian) which in its heyday under the editorship of CP Scott was widely seen as influencing progressive opinion in England.

Journalism is socially relevant, it involves meeting and talking to a wide variety of people, it covers a wide variety of issues. One can envisage a Sunday paper in the Caribbean, for example, which engages in depth all the serious issues of the day ranging from regional integration to the foreign policy and other challenges posed by globalisation, to security issues, to our relations with Latin America, to education and culture. There is so much to be done and there is no reason why journalists should not be in the thick of it. Their work can provide useful information for decision-makers and for society as a whole. It is just that traditionally in the Caribbean we have had too modest an opinion of the possibilities in this profession and hence of the talents that should be attracted and nurtured. I see no reason why if we open it up and start to do the work it should not eventually be seen as on par with the other traditional professions like law and medicine.

As publishers, editors and journalists, we have to establish our bona fides. People cannot take us on trust. They have to decide, on the basis of our work, that we are conscientious, fair, well researched and competent. Everyone gets it wrong sometimes but that should not be a regular occurrence. There is room for error but never for malice or recklessness. If you don’t understand something ask questions, if you don’t know something look it up. A good journalist, like any skilled professional, is learning all the time about his or her craft. There are at least two sides and often three or four to every story. It takes skill and experience to put it all together comprehensibly and with the backgrounding to give it context. Ideally, for example, a top-flight political journalist should have among the tools of his trade a working knowledge of his own country’s modern political history and that of the region, to enable him or her to have perspective and draw analogies.

It is our right to criticise governments, it is our corresponding duty to be well informed, to read Hansard, the reports of parliamentary and other committees, and other relevant documents so that we do not write inanely, ignorant of things we should know. One of the great journalists of our time, IF Stone, had the reputation of having a comprehensive knowledge of the congressional record and his writing was distinguished, apart from his style and incisiveness, by the quality of information he distilled. It is our right to speak out forthrightly on issues of the day but before doing so we should reflect, take counsel, seek such wisdom as we might find within ourselves. We have an unparalleled opportunity to influence opinion, a virtual pulpit from which to address our readers. If we do it casually or carelessly or without properly informing ourselves we have only ourselves to blame for wasting the opportunity.

Let us deal here with the question of our responsibility for the opinions we express in our editorial columns and the positions we take on issues of the day. Make no mistake, these opinions can have consequences and as responsible media persons we bear responsibility for them. In a famous lecture at Oxford, Isaiah Berlin had noted that the German poet Heine had warned the French not to underestimate the power of ideas and that philosophical concepts nurtured in a professor’s study could destroy a civilisation. The power of the pen can be mighty and if we dabble frivolously or provocatively we can do great harm to our society. We must accept and understand that responsibility; it must give us pause when we write. One’s worst nightmare as an editor should be to put forward ideas or proposals without thinking them out which one later believes to be erroneous, but which gain some currency. Errant scribblers will undoubtedly be found in the lower reaches of Dante’s inferno.

As the controllers of relatively scarce resources in developing countries we have a duty within reasonable limits to let all views contend. This can be done, for example, in our letter columns or on call-in programmes in which there are well established protocols and rules and a delay mechanism to exclude libellous or inflammatory statements. The American playwright Arthur Miller said that a newspaper is like a nation having a conversation with itself. If we involve our readers or listeners in what we’re doing we give them a sense of participation, of ownership. That is as it should be. We must want our media to be deeply engaged in the society, to be relevant, to be involved in the dialogue on all the topical issues.

This challenging profession of journalism, I put it to you, entails other weighty responsibilities. We have a responsibility to promote peace not war, both regionally and globally, to oppose unjust claims to the territory of a state, to spread environmental awareness, not to be petty chauvinists, to be men and women of the world, to know who we are and what we’re doing, to agonise about our countries, to try to understand our West Indian identity, to help build the nation, to be peacemakers not fomenters of disputes. Ours is a difficult and demanding task if we come to grips with its true dimensions.

It’s good to have a sense of history and to recognise that newspapers have in their time played many roles, some far from admirable. For example, Lord Northcliffe’s Daily Mail at the tum of the previous century was jingoistic, anti-German and warmongering. A liberal journalist said of Northcliffe in 1914 after the First World War had started “It has always been your part to prophesy war and cultivate hate. There is nothing more tempting to a journalist than to be an incendiary. It is the short cut to success, for it is always easier to appeal to the lower passions of men than to their better instincts.”

By the standards of the downmarket popular press in the United Kingdom the mainstream newspapers in the Caribbean used to be cautious, pallid and almost prudish though that has begun to change, and there are disturbing trends in favour of sensational headlines and sleazy coverage. A sociological analysis of this phenomenon could be both interesting and valuable. The popular press in the UK is sensationalist, frequently chauvinist and anti-immigrant, and sometimes ruthless in its invasion of privacy. The current leader of the pack, the Sun, which sells over 4 million copies a day, had as its front page headline for the 1992 election “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please tum out the lights.” That kind of aggressive editorialising in a news report is unimaginable in the Caribbean. During the Falklands war the Sun distinguished itself with huge front page banner headlines like ‘Blitzed,’ ‘Wallop,’ ‘Charge’ and ‘Stick it up your Junta.’ There was, too, the infamous ‘Gotcha’ when the Argentine warship the General Belgrano was torpedoed by the British. As evidence increased of widespread deaths even the redoubtable editor Kelvin McKenzie changed the headline in later editions to read ‘Did 1,200 Argies drown?’ Though the owner, the great man himself, Rupert Murdoch, the modern counterpart to Northcliffe later told McKenzie “I wouldn’t have pulled it if I were you. Seemed like a bloody good headline to me.”

So we need a sense of balance and

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