Journalists are threats to press freedom
Threats to press freedom are not just confined to state action or even to pressure from commercial interests. Some of these threats come from journalists themselves.
A major threat is the lack of integrity in journalists. Journalism is one profession that can't be agnostic about matters of integrity. These issues, to take a phrase from the renowned philosopher William James, are "live, forced and momentous". We can't not decide on integrity issues. They face us every day in our profession. Will we cover this story to suit our political preferences? Will we promote party political interests in the slant given to our reporting? Will we be fair, dispassionate and even-handed in our analysis of the burning issues before us? Will we use our privileged position in the media to advance our own interests and hurt and defame those we despise?
How we respond as media practitioners turns on the issue of integrity. While in Western media the tradition has been to concentrate on the State's threat to press freedom, downplaying the capitalists' use of the press, the fact is that our dominant materialistic ethos poses serious challenges to press freedom. Money trumps everything these days — including integrity. This is the age in which it seems that every man has his price. And the increasing economic insecurity of journalists is not helping.
This economic insecurity has the potential to challenge our integrity as journalists and lead us to make morally questionable compromises. Some articles you see in the press are so vulgar in their pandering to certain commercial interests. Some television programmes are glorified, shameless infomercials. It is survival at all costs for some media practitioners.
If the journalist is not committed to a set of absolute moral principles — if she is a moral relativist - integrity means nothing. Ethics becomes purely subjective. If a journalist is not wiling to die for certain principles — literally — then he is vulnerable to being bought and used like a prostitute. When we consume journalistic work, we should not have to figure out whether some hidden hand is pulling the strings.
A journalist can favour and even belong to a political party without slavishly or unethically following that party line on his job. He has to separate his party loyalty from his responsibility to the public, which has a right to expect even-handedness, impartiality and fairness. Some people exempt columnists from the obligation of fairness, impartiality and even-handedness. Columnists are allowed to be one-sided, biased, opinionated, etc. I say while columnists have a right to their views, those opinions must not unfairly and unjustly caricature their enemies and should not defame people.
Columnists must also be careful not to misrepresent and distort information just because they have the right to present their personal opinions. That is an abuse of power. It is corrupt to use your columns to ingratiate yourself with certain people or to pander to others for personal gain. This is why the integrity issue is so crucial for journalists. Advertising is not antithetical to good journalism, for indeed, mainline journalism depends on advertising support. But there must be a rigid firewall.
In last Tuesday's Gleaner guest columnist, media consultant and former TVJ general manager, Marcia Forbes, raises questions about Observer columnist Mark Wignall's advertising his personal blog while soliciting advertising for it. In the column titled 'Blogging for money and more: Is the Fourth Estate selling out?', Forbes says: "Herein lies the challenge for journalists and other media workers: To uphold the concept of a free press devoted to the defence of the people and not be in the pocket of advertisers."
Whether one is in the pocket of the politician, advertiser, the media owner, religious institution or at the mercy of his own ego, integrity is not served in the process. The integrity issue is a big threat to media, and I suggest our new Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) president, Dionne Jackson-Miller, herself an outstanding example of journalistic fairness, impartiality and rigour, address this early.
I see that she has signalled, like many PAJ presidents before her, that she will have an emphasis on "training". But the problem is not training, per se, Madam President. Journalists are better trained today — meaning better schooled — than they have ever been. Our journalists today are far better trained, but far less intellectually curious than the journalists I knew in the 1970s and those who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s. They had far less access to intellectual resources, but they were far more voracious readers.
I came under the wings of the late John Maxwell in the mid-1970s. Possessing no more than a high-school education formally, Maxwell was one of the most well-read persons I have ever met. He seemed to know everything. When I visited his home in Stony Hill, I had never seen a library that large. And he never spent a day in university. Today, a number of our journalists have master's degrees, but are far less well-read and intellectually inquisitive. This is inimical to the full exercise of their journalistic responsibilities.
The world has become more complex, not less. It is impatient of sloppy, superficial analysis. It calls for intellectual rigour, intellectual breadth and encyclopaedic knowledge. All that takes a significant investment in time - when there are so many distractions. Yes, as journalists, we must not merely regurgitate. We must come to our own carefully considered conclusions.
But before we can do that, we have to have knowledge. We need to be informed. If we are to help our readers and audiences sort through complex issues, we ourselves must understand them. You can't give your own interpretation of issues if you don't first become acquainted with those issues. Too many are too quick to analyse before they understand.
Issues surrounding economic strategy, economic policy prescriptions, the International Monetary Fund, globalisation, geopolitical environmentalism, international human-rights issues, as well as issues of sexual identity and culture have to be understood at a deep level. Our journalists must be aware of the best scholarship. They must not be intimidated by reading.
I have been conducting training for journalists since last week and I have emphasised the importance of backgrounding and being thoroughly familiar with pubic affairs before you can determine what is a good lead, how to construct a good news story, and how to craft a gripping feature story for print or electronic media. A dumbing down of standards is a threat to press freedom. If our journalists are ill-equipped to frame issues and if they are not acquainted with the latest information, they will be of limited use to the public.
I have emphasised in my journalistic training sessions that the passion for reading and for absorbing information is something that every journalist must cherish. Our Twitterised attention deficit disorder is a threat to good journalism. Every journalist who covers a particular beat should aim to have the kind of expertise and command that the king of financial journalism here, Ralston Hyman, brings to his work. Ralston can not only talk about what is going on in the Jamaican economy and to reel off statistics and facts like a supercomputer, he is acquainted with what is taking place globally and can analyse the Jamaican economy in that light. The parochialism of some of our media colleagues is jarring. It does not serve the public interest.
Ralston has also demonstrated a remarkable impartiality and fairness in his public commentary. Though he is supportive of the People's National Party (PNP), he has lashed out mercilessly at Peter Phillips and the PNP when he sees fits - though they have appointed him to important public boards. But they can't get any sycophancy from him. Someone like Ralston Hyman should be honoured by the Press Association of Jamaica and the Jamaica Broilers Fair Play Awards without his having to enter his work. He should be honoured for his example of expertise in his speciality, his depth and his journalistic fairness and impartiality.
Let's broaden this debate on press freedom. I hope our new PAJ president does, indeed, come with new, fresh ideas for moving the profession forward.