I dabble in the news. I am not interested in Journalism as a professional option. I do like the work of journalists because I believe in some principles that a good journalist is also committed to; 1) speaking truth to power; 2) the democratization of society by ensuring that the opinions and experiences of the voiceless and disenfranchised are aired; 3) journalists are story tellers and stories are powerful transformative tools if they are told the right way. I am also aware that there is a certain way that society demands information which can pressure journalists to court sensationalism and tell their story with such intrigue and drama that it can misrepresent the truth and put people at risk of all kinds of discomfort. The journalist then must be committed to certain key principles; to not be in a hurry to break news; to properly research a story and the implications of a story; to ensure that they tell their story mindful of the principles of ethical practice. It is care and regard for the subject of the story that will guide a journalist to double and triple check and to ensure that they are committed to justice, accuracy and fairness and not just with the ‘sensationalist tendencies’ that can undermine the credibility of journalists, news stations and the misleading of a public which has located trust in an entity or a journalist.
The Society of Professional Journalists notes the following “Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.” (https://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp) Over the last twenty-four hours I have not been able to get the phrase “ethical journalism” out of my head. For someone who ‘dabbles’ in the news, who respects the work of journalists, who loves information and who believes in the power of voice and representation, I see journalists as ‘superheroes’ in this quest for a more just, fair and equitable society. My proximity to the news and to journalists has changed over time. I now know the difference between a reporter and a journalist; my distinction. Because I believe that a good journalist is not attempting to be a ventriloquist, a good journalist understands the potential impact of his or her story and then reports it fully conscious that they are also in the business of politics. Neutrality is never present in a story, those who claim neutrality, in my opinion, are but seeking to walk away from the consequences of their story. Reckless journalism is like walking into a building of people shouting fire and then trying to stand aside pretending innocence in the resulting chaos and stampede.
I believe a good journalist is a good researcher who has a responsibility to delve into the story they are telling, to cross reference, check and double check. Journalists also have a responsibility to give accurate context, to describe the substance of a story. They should know that when a story is taken out of it’s original context the intent of the journalist is to mislead and misrepresent, to impose a political outcome that was not intended at the original telling of the story. This is when the journalist and his or her intention must be called into question.
I had a conversation with a journalist/reporter yesterday, Saturday June 20, 2020. A journalist who took information that I shared in response to a question, in a space that was suppose to be safe, in a space where people are usually vulnerable and because of that vulnerability are treated with care and their information shared with concern; that journalist told.me she had no obligations to check with me the subject of her story, she had no responsibility to assess the impact of her story on my life and livelihood. She could record my voice and tell my story without consulting with me, without verifying with me, without any concern for my safety and wellbeing. I was left speechless after her statement, I was done. What more could she say. She has a platform, she can do what she wants and to hell with me.
What of a journalists ethical responsibility to minimize harm? How can a journalist tell me that they have no obligations to me after they choose to tell my story without my consent? This is not ethical journalism, It is the misuse of power! Journalists must at least balance the need to tell a story with the potential impact of the telling of that story on the lives of the people in the story. What’s the point of telling the story if in the end the subject feels victimized? Journalists must also hold themselves accountable and they have an obligation to make the necessary corrections to their story to ensure that the different sides to a story are told with the same level of care.
Jamaica is remarkable in its rankings on press freedom. My fear is that an unchecked press will do as much harm to a people and a society as a press facing restrictions in its level of freedom. Sensationalistic journalism has the potential to undermine the credibility of news and the power of the story. If a reporter’s only intent is to grab attention and to startle or thrill their audience then they are playing to the most unsophisticated and the basest instincts in their audience.
As I ‘dabble’ in the news I am aware that those who call themselves journalists need to hold themselves to high standards of fairness and care. That good journalism doesnt at all look like sensationalism, that there are good, honest journalists in Jamaica who care for their story and the people they tell stories about.