Journalists have long been hailed as the ‘gatekeepers of information’, as truth-seekers and protectors of public interest (rather than protectors of what is merely ‘interesting to the public’… something we’d all do well to remember) and journalism, in the truest sense of the word, has generally always been viewed as an admirable profession – an honest one, even – but over the years (particularly, in the last decade), it has collectively endured some bumpy and indeed, questionable moments and has started to fall from grace with surprising speed.
Nowadays, it often seems, and indeed feels, as if the ‘global society’ of media/journalists have lost sight of the innate, most noble goals of our profession: truth, accuracy, credibility and above all, using our hearts and our minds to make key, split-second decisions that best serve public interest (and not any one person, organisation or publication), thereby making the world a more honest, if not a faintly better, place.
A quote by the late Pope John Paul II says: “With its vast and direct influence on public opinion, journalism cannot be guided only by economic forces, profit and special interest. It must instead be felt as a mission, in a certain sense sacred, carried out in the knowledge that the powerful means of communication have been entrusted to you for the good of all.”
Personally, I believe that quote encapsulates the very essence of what journalism should be about. It’s not about seeing how many stories we can churn out a day to satisfy the seemingly unquenchable appetite of a ‘connected’, internet/social media-reliant world (with a painfully short attention span), or news publications – whether print or online – that require us to constantly put articles or breaking news stories out there, even if it means sacrificing our accuracy and having to later apologise for our ineptitude (Think: CNN’s so-called ‘live’ coverage of the 2013 Boston Bombing) or turning to would-be ‘citizen journalists’ for information or news, which we don’t even try to verify before regurgitating (i.e., ‘retweeting’) it.
Although most people still have an almost reluctant sense of trust in journalists and their affiliations (especially good, reliable international news corporations like Al Jazeera and BBC News or locally, newspapers such as: Mail & Guardian or Die Burger), the incidents of inaccuracy, untruthfulness and even made-up scenarios are on the rise among the press and journalists, as a species, are losing their credibility and perhaps even more importantly, their sense of obligation.
We should not be depending on the public to hold us accountable more than we hold ourselves accountable but sadly, this is the case. The lines of right and wrong are being almost irredeemably blurred and although we are meant to be a moral breed, we simply aren’t anymore.
I myself don’t trust the press and yet, I kind of want to be one of them – that’s a pretty terrifying thought. In late 2013, I actually stopped reading newspapers and consistently following the news because I lost faith in what it stood for and what was being put out into public global spheres and, although I’ve regained some meagre hope in ‘our’ cause and in certain news channels/publications, a lot of the time the way we cover now news disgusts me.
Now, I don’t blame the media solely for this, as I do blame the consumers in part… It’s like this: ISIS releases a video of Christians being beheaded on a beach and suddenly, everyone is hopping over to YouTube to watch it. Seriously? Those are people being killed by ruthless, blood-thirsty terrorists, it’s not a preview of the next Bond movie!
Although, that being said, when you have news channels like Sky News airing bloody photos from the Reeva Steenkamp murder scene (that were never meant to be seen by or released to anyone outside of the forensic investigators, legal teams and the Court) during the Oscar Pistorius trial last year or even locally and recently, with the way the media hounded anyone linked to the ‘baby-kidnapping’ case of Zephany Nurse – a minor who, because it wasn’t enough for her to have her entire world turned upside down and to be caught in a tug of war between two families whilst in Matric, she had to endure the seemingly relentless S.A. press as well – causing her to virtually beg to be left alone to be a normal 17-year-old girl, then you realise that we, as the media, have well and truly lost the plot too.
Even if news channels don’t air such horrors – or they flash a disclaimer across the screen moments before they do, saying something along the lines of: “This report contains sensitive content that may be upsetting to some viewers,” – in general, we describe and document the nitty-gritty aspects of horrific war zones and even grisly murder cases with alarming written- and visual detail.
Do we do this because it’s what’s right, what is ethical or do we do it because it’s what we think the public is interested in? Sadly, even when good journalists do try to compile compelling news stories or newsworthy articles, Kim Kardashian’s bum ends up taking centre stage and possibly even snags a prime spot – and I’m talking about the ‘Page Three’ of daily newspapers, not tabloids or gossip magazines here.
With all this in mind, my opinion of what it means to be a moral, ethical journalist (or just a writer with a conscience, if you prefer) and what the ethical media practices should entail when it comes to public interest run as follows:
Firstly, I believe that we need to revisit the core values of journalism and media ethics and ask ourselves – before tweeting, updating a blog or writing a newspaper column/online article – what it means to be an ethical journalist.
As indicated by the South African Press Code, “The press exists to serve society… and is essential to realising the promise of democracy.” So, as S.A. journalists, we need to fight for the freedom of press and expression and yet, at the same time, we need to prove that we are better than those we’re writing about…
For example, how can one publicly slam the government as ‘corrupt’ when, as a journalist, you are taking ‘gifts’ (i.e. bribes) and are not only disobeying point 3.2 of the Press Code (as found under the Bill of Rights – Section 16’s third rule, ‘Independence and conflicts of interest’) but are just as corrupt as those you seek to discredit in the eyes of the public?
Thus, we need to follow, as closely as possible, the rules as set out by the S.A. Press Code and, first and foremost, learn to hold ourselves accountable. It is not the job of our editors, friends or the public to point out what is wrong or unacceptable for us by law… It is our job to know it and lest we forget, to constantly remind ourselves by reviewing said Code.
Secondly, I believe that nothing we write, do or say as a journalist should ever intentionally or carelessly infringe upon the rights or privacy of another human being – most especially with regards to a child. It is our job to protect our sources, the helpless and those who cannot speak for themselves, even as we tell stories or expose the truth. You cannot write a story, with the intention of highlighting alcohol foetal syndrome in the Western Cape, by publishing a story about a fictional child in one of the main local newspapers.
Also, just because immediate family and friends can offer the best insight into a person’s character after a death, murder or fatal accident does not mean that we should approach them… It annoys the hell out of me when I see published photos of body bags or journalists attempting to speak to grief-stricken family members.
That woman, whose child just lost their life in the crossfire of two rival gangs in the Cape Flats, doesn’t need your microphone being shoved into her face or to be asked for a quote minutes, hours or even days after she has had watch that child die or bury them. I believe we need to start imagining how we would feel if we were the ones who had died or been injured… Would you want the press badgering your family in their time of mourning, would you want your lifeless body pasted across the pages of a newspaper? No, I didn’t think so.
I also feel that if we are serious about being true journalists, then we need to accept that there is no way that we can be unbiased or ‘objective’ journalists… to me, it is a pipe dream – nothing more. There is no way that any one human can be truly objective as a writer, for we all have preconceived ideas, preceptions, history, heritage and ways of thinking/acting that influence who we are as people, as much as what we write and how we report. In support of my view, I’d like to quote Glenn Greenwald (the man responsible for breaking the Edward Snowden/National Security Agency story): “Human beings are not objectivity-driven machines. We all intrinsically perceive and process the world through subjective prisms.” (Kellerman, 2013)
When I write, although I want to be respectful, fair and honest, I also want to be able to do so without having to hold back my anger, displeasure or approval/disapproval of something or to keep all my personal feelings and views entirely at bay… for how can one write with any kind of passion, any sense of reality and understanding, if you do not pour some aspects of your heart, soul and mind into the piece you are writing or the story you are covering?
With the possible exception of hard news, journalists cannot be objective (journalism is subjective by default and entirely open to interpretation from fellow journalists, readers and viewers), nor should we be, for, (Glasser, 1984) according to Theodore Glasser… “Objectivity in journalism erodes the very foundation on which rests a responsible press.” He concluded with, “The task, then, is to liberate journalism from the burden of objectivity by demonstrating – as convincingly as we can – that objective reporting is more of a custom than a principle, more a habit of mind than a standard of performance. And by showing that objectivity is largely a matter of efficiency – efficiency that serves, as far as I can tell, only the needs and interests of the owners of the press, not the needs and interests of talented writers and certainly not the needs and interests of the larger society.” (Glasser, 1984)
As such, our first obligation is to the public and then, secondly, to ourselves as writers… not to the publication we write for, nor our ruling party/local government and certainly not to the corrosive powers of fame and fortune. If you want to be rich and famous, go find another occupation.
Although journalist, Bill Keller, made a good point when – in conversation with ground-breaking activist and partisan journalism advocate, Glenn Greenwald – he said, “Journalists in this tradition have plenty of opinions, but by setting them aside to follow the facts… they can often produce results that are more substantial and more credible,” (Kellerman, 2013), as journalists, we still need to have our own opinions and the ability to wage strong arguments, for we have the capability, and indeed the moral obligation, of speaking truth to power.
Thus, it’s not about our being objective but rather about our being brave, for as Mr Greenwald further stated: “The relevant distinction is between journalists who honestly disclose their subjective assumptions and political values and those who dishonestly pretend they have none or conceal them from their readers. Moreover, all journalism is a form of activism. Every journalistic choice necessarily embraces highly subjective assumptions – cultural, political or nationalistic – and serves the interests of one faction or another.” (Kellerman, 2013)
What’s more, it’s time for us to remember to fight for the truth, accuracy and ethics again… because the state of the press – and indeed, of the world – depends quite heavily on our words and actions, for as Edward Snowden (of whom I am a huge fan and who I honestly wish we could bring to S.A.), as can be seen on the Brave New Films documentary ‘War on Whistleblowers’ (2015), said: “We need to decide the kind of world that we want to live in and the only way we can make those decisions is if we know what’s going on and that can’t happen without a free press and that can’t happen without people willing to stand up and speak the truth, even when that’s a very dangerous thing to do.”
Thus, above all, as journalists, we need to fearlessly fight to expose and relay the truth at all times… Journalism is, after all, a dangerous occupation anyway and quite frankly, I’d rather be despised or arrested for telling the truth, even if my voice or handshakes in the telling, than I would for existing as a cowardly ‘journo.’ or a press lackey.
So, in answer to S.A. media ethicist, Professor Herman Wasserman’s question (as quoted from cultural theorist and sociologist, Dr Stuart Hall) “Against the urgency of people dying in the streets, what in God’s name is the point of journalism?”, I believe that lastly, the point of journalism remains much as it ever has… and that is for us to be gatekeepers of truth and information and to safeguard and attend to public interest more than ever before – but if we cannot do this, then I am sorry to say but the state of the press is dead in the water and we – as former, current and aspirant journalists – have all failed, not only the public and our profession but humanity and all that is good, noble and right in this world too.