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Journalism, not rumour mongering

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Fri, Jun 29. 2012

From time to time, journalists or media houses are criticized by some members of the public for not living up to their expectations about what the media’s role should be.

The question is often asked why isn’t mainstream media tackling a particular topic, when so much is being said about the topic, on the street corners, on radio call in shows, on social media sites or by Internet bloggers.{{more}}

In some instances, the criticism is warranted, in others, the perception of failure on the part of the media house often reflects a superficial and naïve view on the part of the observer, as to the role of the professional journalist.

At the opening ceremony of the International Press Institute’s (IPI) 61st annual World Congress held in Trinidad earlier this week, President of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago George Maxwell Richards, who gave the feature address, reminded the over 300 media managers from 60 countries around the world about the importance of career development and the training of new recruits to the profession of journalism in every aspect of their work.

Professor Richards made the point that entrants to the profession should not be expected to just “wing it”. He said while he was mindful that news should serve the public interest, he found it unfair to constantly blame the media for reporting or not reporting, as the public would like.

Interestingly, he said account should be taken of the old fashioned and perhaps disparaged editorial decision making exercises, which may facilitate the distinction between truth and rumour.

The value of editorial decision making exercises referred to by Professor Richards should not be underestimated. The individual untrained blogger or broadcaster sometimes has a narrow perspective, and produces work tainted by personal agendas, which could bring the profession into disrepute. Therein lies the value of a newsroom, where individual journalists’ perspectives can and should be challenged and held to certain standards, prior to publication or broadcast.

Of course, many good news stories first come to the attention of the media in the form of a rumour. Radio call in shows and social media give good ideas about the issues which are attracting the attention of some members of the public, and may point journalists in the direction in which the information being sought may lie.

It is at this point that the work of a professional journalist begins, as journalism is not, and should never be, rumour mongering. The Internet age has opened up to anyone who has access, volumes of information of varying quality, on every topic imaginable. However, the fact that something is published on the Internet does not make it true. Worse still, is when that information cannot be attributed to any identifiable person or organization.

A researcher may unearth something, which was published in the United States, and feel it can also safely be published here. What may not be realized is that defamation laws in the United States are in some cases different to those of the English speaking Caribbean. For example, in the US, malice has to be proved on the part of the person being sued for defamation, for the suit to succeed. That is not necessarily true in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. This is why a public which has grown up on a diet of American television or tabloid magazines may find the rather tame approach of Caribbean media irritating, to say the least.

Calls have been made by the IPI for a review of the defamation and insult laws in the Caribbean to bring them more in line with international standards. There is merit in this call, but additionally, there is work to be done by the media itself in relation to professional development and the establishment of effective self-regulatory systems.

Investigative work on the part of the journalist should be able to separate truth from fiction, but in many instances, good investigative work is hampered because of the meager resources (human and financial) of local media houses and the obstacles erected by officials who have access to the truth.

Despite all these challenges, media professionals should never abdicate their responsibility to fulfill the public’s right to know, and should do the best they can, lack of resources notwithstanding. This is why, legal and official obstacles placed in the path of journalists in their quest to uncover the truth should be removed. A free press facilitates good governance and guarantees that the truth will find a voice. Too many public officials still refuse to answer simple media queries or provide information, which would bring clarification to matters of public interest. It must be noted that we are not referring here to information, which would put our national security at risk.

We therefore call once more on the government to take the necessary steps, including the operationalization of the Freedom of Information Act, to ensure that truth is more accessible in this country. We also call on media workers to raise the bar in the practice of our profession, so that the distinction between journalists and rumour mongers would be more clearly made.

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