Comments Can Be Free, but Facts Must Be Sacred

MEDIA, 26 Dec 2016

Moin Qazi – TRANSCEND Media Service

“Comment is free but facts are sacred.”
— CP Scott, founder editor of The Guardian

 

21 Dec 2016 – A growing problem that threatens to undermine the quality essential to journalism remaining a reliable, credible, ongoing, and profitable business is: low trust. Journalism has veered off course though. In fact, it’s taken a dangerously wrong turn, all in the name of more web traffic. This is best summed up by the unwritten mantra of many digital newsrooms: ”We might get it wrong, but we’re not wrong for long.” Once, the idea that a certain level of error was acceptable in journalism would have been anathema to any news editor. But it’s pretty clear that’s not the case anymore.

The press once seemed to have a conscience, thanks to history’s painful social conflicts and questions of war and peace. The world has changed, however, and many of us may be in the time warp of old values. This is not to deny   that the    journalist’s task has become much more difficult on account of the wider segmentation of the reader. There is almost an equal division of readers holding allegiance to contrasting values and accordingly yearning for news that affirms their own value systems and judgments. Young journalists who once dreamed of trotting the globe in pursuit of a story are instead shackled to their computers, where they try to eke out a fresh thought or be first to report even the smallest nugget of news—anything that will impress Google algorithms and draw readers their way

But as we are  slowly learning,  all of us from the media–from the most powerful columnists to the tiniest bloggers—need to be careful about what we put out into the cloud. Our keyboards have become so powerful now, that our slightest action of irresponsibility can blow the world into a crisis. Can we, members of the media, also not cooperate to stave off negativity from ruling the psychology of our people? Because instant and credible information has to be given, it becomes necessary to indulge in guesswork, rumors and suppositions to fill in the voids, and none of them will ever be rectified, they will stay on in the readers’ memory. How many immature, hasty, misleading and superficial   judgments are expressed every day, confusing the common reader? Many of the readers rely on our opinions for making  l decisions in their everyday life.

We must not forget the commonsense lesson that objectivity has been the hallmark of quality journalism. In an attempt to break news or create exclusive stories, many journalists leave objectivity, professional ethics and personal integrity behind. Exaggerating facts, presenting just one side of the argument or sensationalizing stories is bad journalism and one must steer clear of the factors that lead to confusion and misrepresentation.

There are a number of ways that a journalist can hold people and organizations accountable for their actions without taking a position. To start with, journalists working on a story must be determined to stay objective, throughout the period of research and investigation. To avoid taking a position, both or multiple sides of the story must be presented. If people or organizations are involved in wrongdoings, then their view as well as the views of those facing the repercussions of their actions must be made clear. It is not up to the journalist to help shape the reader’s perspective, especially, while reporting a story or doing a feature, therefore, one should avoid taking a stand. Sometimes, simply pursuing a story, because personal interests could be at stake, amounts to taking a position.

In journalism, like in law, facts can be presented to support or disprove an incident, an action or a decision. Being aware of this, can help journalists understand that facts have to be presented not as one would like them to be read to fit a notion or a brief, but as they have occurred.

Readers and viewers are now immediately taking comments from their peers, seeing additional points of view on the blogosphere, and even hearing directly from companies and sources that may be the subject of a story. No longer do reader letters take days or weeks to publish–and that was only after they’d been edited down to bite-sized, consumable blip–after a story’s news cycle has already passed

What is ironic is that although media causes a lot of angst by revealing what is on the other side of the curtain, or creating desires that seem frivolous, it could also be the tool that empowers the poor the most, and ultimately inverts the pyramid!. Newspapers can manipulate

While it is vital for journalists to keep a healthy distance from the subjects they cover and the source material they call upon, the good news is that we’ve arrived at a point where content is ubiquitous, and the very participation of multiple parties has resulted in a much more dynamic, energized and exciting form of journalism. That means the current generation of news consumers are the beneficiaries of a rich conversation that occurs among sources, the press and the public–which, in the end, has resulted in more of a reporting partnership than a soapbox.

The rise of blogs has greatly enlarged and confused the market. The opinion of the blogosphere is having a growing influence over the most serious political, economic, and social processes. A disparager would say that anybody can be a blogger, and anything can be a blog: is this not proof of low standards? And yet, top bloggers include academics and commentators whose work would qualify them as public intellectuals by any traditional measure. Indeed, it seems fair to say that if you have the quick wit and the pithy turn of phrase traditionally needed to succeed as a public intellectual, then you are one of nature’s bloggers .Bloggers however run the risk of appropriating to themselves the right to comment on everything under the sun, to pontificate on matters with which they may have just a cursory relationship. There is no filtering point for blogs, like we have in letters sent to editors and the blogosphere could get cluttered by much casual and non serious stuff which would only obscure the more qualitative and well researched despatches.

Liberalization in the country has ushered in so many news channels and newspapers that it has become a tough challenge for newsmen to differentiate themselves from the flock. While lauding investigative journalism and judicial activism, the Supreme Court had cautioned about the possible abuses that could creep in. Activism can have its dangers. Poorly calibrated, it can make bad problems worse. The baby boomers in the news business certainly did cut our teeth on huge stories that raised powerful emotions, though another generation of journalists is now also in place. It is the older journalists who have defined newsroom values, and for us, these events provided a fertile breeding ground for a low-key, backburner liberalism.

In the pursuit of truth and fairness, no price is too high to pay. One should make that extra call, take that extra trip, visit that additional source – then do it all over again until one is truly convinced that the story is as accurate, as fair and as thorough as humanly possible.

Let us not forget that there was a generation of journalists in whose hands a mystic transference took place with each clack of the typewriter imprinting a journalistic legacy on the next generation. Stamped indelibly on our formative minds when we were training for journalism was the line;”every time a grand editor puts a finger to a typewriter, he sits back to hear the crash of falling governments.”

The journalism of today may be bringing a lot of power and pelf to the practitioners of its trade, but, it is losing its sheen because it is becoming increasingly devoid of the essential content that earned it the honor of the Fourth Estate : trust.

I remember a young journalist desperate to make to the big media .He was always on the hunt for a story that would catapult him to the national league. He coldly hunted stories for a page-one byline. And he landed on one .He did not allow a corrective conscience. Within hours of reaching the village, his story was ready – a villainous moneylender killed by long-suffering villagers. But the young inquisitive journalist had also unearthed a disconcerting fact: the moneylender was a kind-hearted, generous man whose death was being used to intimidate other moneylenders. Outstanding loans are written off by the moneylender to buy peace with villagers, but the politically well-connected and dangerous moneylenders plan a brutal retribution. The young   journalist hates the half-truth he reports, but covets the byline it gets him?’

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Moin Qazi, PhD Economics, PhD English, is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades in India and can be reached at moinqazi123@gmail.com.

 

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 26 Dec 2016.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: Comments Can Be Free, but Facts Must Be Sacred, is included. Thank you.

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