By Moin Qazi
There can be no higher law in journalism than, to tell the truth and to shame the devil. — Walter Lippmann.
In an ideal world, journalism is a profession of incredible integrity. Good journalists are among the most dexterous and skilled people in the world. They are also the most respected. Everyone is benefited from the work of indefatigable journalists who put life, limb, family and even sanity on the line for truth. There is no sane, decent, and democratic polity possible without journalists. They challenge power, relentlessly pursue and disseminate truth.
In recent times, the noble values of this equally noble profession have suffered considerable and irreparable erosion. Some of the desperately ambitious, and those ideologically rooted in a particular conviction, have taken a dangerously wrong turn, all in the allurement of instant fame. This is best summed up by the unwritten mantra of many digital newsrooms: “We might get it wrong, but we’re not wrong for long.”
There is no disputing that, like politics, journalism is the fastest ladder to name, fame and fortune. The last being true in several, but not all cases. The great author Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
Once, the idea was that even a certain level of error was anathema to any news editor. However, clearly, that’s not the case anymore. Journalists often function as megaphones for political parties, relaying their viewpoint rather than contextualising and analysing them. There is a sharp rise in the influence of partisan voices, spin doctors and surrogates in the shaping of public opinion.
The press once seemed to have a conscience, thanks to history’s influence. However, the world has changed and a lot of people are stuck in the time warp of old values. Like all institutions, the media has also suffered in terms of its reputation. Values are not what matters most, and this is a good time to pause, reflect and talk about them. It is time to reaffirm what journalists should stand for. Journalism has a key role to play in shaping public mind. Moreover, the damage a corrupted media can cause is colossal.
In an age of social media, where stories can go viral in much shorter spaces of time than before, one would think that it would become ever more important from an ethical point of view for stories to be reported accurately.
The first mission of a newspaper is, to tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained. The public expects that of journalists as the least reciprocation of their trust. Over the years, the press has become the most powerful body the world over. It is able to form public opinion. But in order to be deserving of freedom, the press must show itself worthy of it. A free press must be a responsible press, its credibility and neutrality beyond the slightest reproach.
Good journalism requires attentive listening to diverse sources and dogged examination. Further, it requires analysis of data and evidence and close observation of policies and institutions. It takes time and skill. It requires the support of editors and other news leaders who live in the community and are aware of it. The same does not necessarily guarantee publishers a return in eye-popping audience numbers. However, it certainly leads to an enlightened and well-informed society.
The journalist’s task has indeed become much more difficult on account of the wider segmentation of the reader. There is almost an equal division of readers holding allegiance to contrasting values. They accordingly yearn for news that affirms their own value systems and judgments. Young journalists who once dreamed of trotting the globe in pursuit of a story are instead shackled to their computers. This is where they try to turn out opinions and ideas or be first to report even the smallest nugget of news. News, which will impress Google algorithms and draw readers their way. Indeed journalists have a totally new algorithm of journalism that favors news that will connect with us, ideas that affirm our own. It walls us off from diverse opinion, from startling ideas that might disturb us in healthy ways. Journalists of the brave era were often drawn to the profession as a form of public service: comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable, expose corruption and incompetence wherever they found it they contributed, even in subtle, ways towards reflecting our best intentions
Journalists, be it the most powerful columnists or the tiniest bloggers, are slowly learning the need to be careful. Keyboards have become so powerful now, that the slightest action of irresponsibility can blow the world into a crisis. Can the members of the media, also not cooperate to stave off negativity from ruling the psychology of the people? Because instant and credible information have to be given, it becomes necessary to resort to guesswork, to fill in the voids, and none of them will ever be rectified; they will stay on in the readers’ memory. Several clarifications appear more as tiny prints and are rarely noticed. How many raw, immature, misleading and superficial judgments are expressed every day, confusing the common reader? Many of the readers rely on a journalist’s opinions for making decisions in their everyday life. In some cases, they may be very critical decisions. Should journalists not be concerned about their accountability for influencing the decisions of the readers?
Journalists must not forget the commonsense lesson that objectivity has been the hallmark of all quality journalism. Facts are journalism’s foundation; the pursuit of them, without fear or favor, is its main objective. Abraham Lincoln’s advice rings true even today, “Let the people be aware of the facts, and the country will be calm”.
At the same time exaggerating and distorting facts, presenting just one side of the argument or sensationalizing stories is ugly and detestable journalism. As CP Scott, the founder editor of The Guardian emphasized: “Comment is free but facts are sacred”.
There are a number of ways that a journalist can hold people and organizations accountable for their actions without taking a position. To start with, journalists working on a story must be determined to stay objective, throughout the period of research and investigation. To avoid taking a position, both or multiple sides of the story must be presented. If people or organisations are involved in wrongdoings, then their view and the views of those facing the repercussions must be presented. It is not up to the journalist to help shape the reader’s perspective. Especially, while reporting a story or doing a feature; therefore, one should avoid taking a stand.
In journalism, facts can be presented to support or oppose an incident, an action or a decision. Being aware of this can help journalists understand that facts have to be presented not as one would like them to be read to fit a notion or a brief, but as they have occurred. It calls for ice-like neutrality. Readers and viewers are now immediately taking comments from their peers, seeking additional points of view on the blogosphere, and even hearing directly from companies and sources that may be the subject of a story. No longer do reader letters take days or weeks to publish, and that was only after they’d been edited down to bite-sized, consumable blip after a story’s news cycle has already passed.
It is vital for journalists to keep a healthy distance from the subjects they cover and the source material they call upon. However, journalists have arrived at a point where content is ubiquitous. The very participation of multiple parties has resulted in a much more dynamic, energised and exciting form of journalism. That means the current generation of news consumers are the beneficiaries of a rich conversation that occurs among sources, the press and the public. This, in the end, churns out sometimes really marvellous content.
The rise of blogs has greatly enlarged and confused the market. The opinion of the blogosphere is having a growing influence over the most serious political, economic, and social processes. Top bloggers include academics, policy-wonks, administrators and commentators whose work would qualify them as public intellectuals by any traditional measure. Bloggers, however, run the risk of appropriating to themselves the right to comment on everything under the sun. They believe they can pontificate on matters with which they may have just a casual relationship. There is no filtering point for blogs; important letters sent to editors gets cluttered with much superficial and non-serious stuff. This only obscures the more qualitative and well-researched contents.
Liberalization has ushered in so many news channels and newspapers. Hence, it has become a tough challenge for newsmen to differentiate themselves from the flock. The real challenge for today’s journalists is to identify their values. In an environment where trust is no longer the default, in a world where reading the daily newspaper in the morning and watching the news broadcast at night has moved from standard to niche behavior, just doing great journalistic work isn’t enough.
In the pursuit of truth and fairness, no price is too high to pay. One should make that extra call, take that extra trip, and visit that additional source. Then, they should, do it all over again until one is truly convinced that the story is as accurate, as fair and as thorough as humanly possible.
It is important to remember that there was a generation of journalists in whose hands a mystic transference took place with each clack of the typewriter imprinting a journalistic legacy on the next generation. Stamped indelibly in every journalist formative minds when they were training was the line: “Every time a grand editor puts a finger to a typewriter, he sits back to hear the crash of falling governments.”
The public expects that of media as the least reciprocation of their trust. If they fail to pursue the truth and to tell it unflinchingly because of the fear of being unpopular, or because powerful interests will take precedence, or because of the worry about financial repercussions to advertising or subscriptions, the public will not forgive them. For this to happen, the media will have to walk that extra mile. As John Pilger advises in his book Hidden Agendas, “It is not enough for journalists to see themselves as mere messengers without understanding the hidden agendas of the message and the myths that surround it.”
The journalist need to remember that there primary task is to report the world honestly, without fear or favor, striving to understand and reflect the diverse political perspectives and life experiences in the stories that they bring to us. They must also hold power to account, impartially and unflinchingly.
In the Newseum, a museum in Washington DC, the following statement is etched which serves as a poignant reminder for all journalists:
“The Free Press is a cornerstone of democracy. People have the need to know. Journalists have the right to tell. Finding the facts can be difficult. Reporting the story can be dangerous. Freedom includes the right to be outrageous. Responsibility includes the right to be fair. The news is history in the making. Journalists provide the first draft of history. A Free Press, at its very best, reveals the truth.”