Byron Buckley | Media literacy and accountability
A story published recently by The Gleaner, 'Not you, madam! I am answerable to the contractor general, prime minister tells political ombudsman', is a teachable moment. There are, at least, two lessons to be learned: one is about news-writing techniques and the other is about media accountability.
Very often, news is contained in what is NOT explicitly stated, but is obvious. Furthermore, information has news value because of the context in which it is disseminated. Rookie journalists in the local media fraternity are often told the story of a reporter who was sent from Jamaica to cover a celebrity wedding in the Eastern Caribbean. Not seeing any story filed to meet the print deadline, the editor called the reporter, who responded, "There is no story; the bride did not turn up." Moron, that's the story! (my reaction).
The story at issue, written by seasoned journalist Edmond Campbell, is an example of news value created because of the context in which Prime Minister Andrew Holness made his remarks. The reporter sets out the framework of the story in the opening or lead paragraph, which I have reproduced below with the context highlighted in italics.
"Following a stern warning from Political Ombudsman Donna Parchment-Brown against the abuse of state resources in St Mary South East in order to gain political mileage in a pending by-election, Prime Minister Andrew Holness says he only answers to the contractor general and the National Contracts Commission on government spending on contracts, indicating that he does not answer to Parchment-Brown."
This is an example of contextualised news writing, something that The Observer practises more than The Gleaner in the print media. The role of journalists is to present the news in context so that busy and distracted news consumers can appreciate what is happening around them. Interpretive journalism does not come easily; only seasoned and well-informed reporters are able to demonstrate these skills.
I turn now to the second lesson: media accountability. The media fraternity - owners and practitioners - cannot expect to continue practising their trade without being accountable to the public in the 21st century. It can't work!
So, what is the answer? There are several models of media accountability. Each media organisation can install an ombudsman to deal with complaints from the public and provide redress. The success of this approach depends on the impartiality and independence of the ombudsman's ruling and the willingness of the media house to abide by his/her ruling.
The ideal person to perform the role of a media ombudsman is a well-respected, retired journalist (like Wyvolyn Gager, former Gleaner editor-in-chief and election observer in Guyana) or a retired jurist. Persons from other occupational/professional groups also qualify to be media ombudsman.
Another approach to promoting media accountability is the establishment of an industrywide media complaints commission comprising a group of well-respected persons, including a retired journalist. This has been proposed for Jamaica, but media owners shy away from the idea, pointing to potential dangers to the independence of the media from possible government manipulation and control.
I won't delve into the merits or demerits of the arguments presented by the media owners. However, I believe a media complaints commission has inherent weaknesses, chief among them being that it is a toothless authority (as observed in the United Kingdom), as media houses can opt not to abide by the rulings - the main sanction being voluntary public apology.
Another approach to promoting accountability by the media is the professional association for journalists performing a watchdog role over its members. Under my presidency, the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) sought to mediate in instances where media practitioners were believed to have deviated from the association's professional ethics. However, a criticism of this approach is that the absence of public shaming renders the sanction ineffective.
Under the presidency of veteran journalist Jenni Campbell, which followed mine, the PAJ established an Advisory Council with the primary role of adjudicating press freedom issues and preserving the integrity of the profession. Many of the issues that were addressed by the council were related to political attacks on journalists and intrusion on journalistic practices by forces outside of the newsrooms. Yes, media complaint is a two-way street.
However, the media - with such awesome power - cannot remain largely unaccountable. In Jamaica, unlike the United States of America (USA) and Trinidad & Tobago, press freedom is NOT explicitly entrenched in the Constitution. However, it provides citizens with the right to freedom of expression, which the media act on. Therefore, it is time that Jamaican citizens protect their own rights, and themselves establish media watchdog groups - as is the case in the USA. The proliferation of various information communication technologies makes this possible. It is time for increased media literacy and accountability.
- Byron Buckley is former president of the Press Association of Jamaica and former vice-president of the Association of Caribbean Media Workers. Email feedback to columns@gleaner