Election time will inevitably turn the temperature up on every issue under the sun, including lately complaints about the media displaying lack of veracity, lack of balance, and misinformation. Indeed, election time or not, those complaints are forever being fired at the newspapers here, and many persons continue to be distressed by not only the content but the very nature of the press here. However while the distress is understandable, significant relief is not in sight.
The first problem is that a newspaper has a very short window – approximately 7 hours – to produce a document (which, by the way, didn’t exist before that day), covering scores, or even hundreds of items, requiring text and photographs, checking of copy, checking of facts, confirming quotes, design and layout, and printing. It is frantic work, dealing with minutiae, often at speed, and having done it I can tell you that it is a wonder that what comes out is not much worse than it is. In effect, it is a business of controlled frenzy, and in all of such operations, things fall into cracks. Unfortunately, in the newspaper business, what falls into cracks is information, or misinformation, and bad feelings result; the situation however (again, I have been there) is not one of malice but usually simply one of people working under stress. Slow down, you say? In principle, perhaps, but in practice impossible, because we, you and I, want our newspapers religiously, every morning at 6 am. Also, everybody wants their story covered today. Slowdown is out.
The second contributor is the shortage of professional skill in some of the people writing for some of the media here, but this is not a handicap that affects only the journalism field. There are exceptions, and I have talked about them, but it is generally true that everywhere you look in Guyana our standards need improving. Look at the roads; the apparent inability to cope with refuse around Bourda market; the carpenter whose work shows poorly-fitted joins; the painter who leaves spots on your floor; the mechanic returning your car with grease marks on the carpet; in cases such as these and others too numerous to mention we see the often lower standard of work we deliver; why are we suddenly aghast to find some examples of shoddiness in the media? The condition, unfortunately, is part of the stream, not just some takuba popping up in it.
Beyond that, however, there is an immutable over-riding factor in this issue, and here’s a true incident to illustrate it. Several years ago, I worked in editorial for about a year or so for the daily newspaper in Cayman, the Caymanian Compass, and I found myself in a conversation with the publisher one day, regarding several problems in the previous day’s edition – incorrect headline; wrong caption on a picture; key information missing in a major story, etc. He raised his eyebrows, patted me on the shoulder, and said, “Were the ads in the right place?”
That incident embodies the principal contributor to the controversy over information in the media. A newspaper, in its delivery, is a source of information, but in operation it is a business. Like any business it must show a profit –“are the ads in the right place?” is a very pertinent question – and to do that, as any business, it must cater to its customers or perish. The argument that the newspaper has a responsibility to present information accurately and neutrally to the public is correct as far it goes, but there is in fact a higher priority – the newspaper must succeed as a private business. The public sees the information medium, but very often we don’t see the business contained there generating it.
Just as the hardware merchant does, or the electrical supply outlet does, or even the mango seller does, the newspaper must satisfy the customer, and in the case of the two popular papers here, the propensity for scandalous stories, pictures of atrocities, or stories of personal calamities or frailties, in short bursts preferably, is driven by the customers of the newspapers. That’s what they want. The evidence is clearly in, for this country and for most, that the shocking news, the bad news, the horrendous news stories are what the public wants; they are drawn to that; they will seek the paper carrying it, even when the printing is poor, the writing sloppy, and the pictures blurred beyond recognition. The American businessman Nick Denton, the founder and CEO of Gawker Media, says the key to financial success in media is to consider not what people say they want, nor what they should want, but what they choose when there are choices before them. The “other choices,” in other media, already somewhat present here, will inevitably proliferate, so that any newspaper which ignores the mandates of its readers will find them turning, more and more, to those other choices, print or otherwise, designed precisely with them in mind.
Many other factors affect how we see media, subjectivity being one. What coincides with our position, we read as accurate, but in the same publication, we dismiss the contrary view, particularly when delivered by someone we distrust, and we question the editor’s judgement in printing it. Frequently, a prominent person seeing a point expressed in a way other than he/she said it, will see malice in a news story when there is none. Some professionals even resort to delivering finished copy to the media to ensure his/her version appearing, but time constraints, and particularly space constraints, facing an editor, can readily frustrate that. There is also the skyrocketing presence of electronic media with its instant news, and short, punchy, sensational items. Newspapers have been understandably influenced by this approach in the need to hold readers. Similarly, the complaint from a reader that the stories are “too long” or have “too many big words,” while dismissed by the subject of the piece, is something that an editor must take seriously; his customers are defining his product, very specifically.
The bottom line is that every newspaper everywhere is a business, and under the present circumstances in Guyana the two major ones here are about as good as they are likely to get; those of us who become understandably frustrated by our media irregularities have a long day ahead.