In a world awash with communication and with the globalisation of the media continuing apace as 2017 gets underway, there is, as perhaps never before, the need for responsible journalism; journalism that presents the facts and seeks out the truth by critical questioning and analysis. It should be journalism on which the public at large can rely, journalism that reveals, without fear or favour, verified and verifiable information that is in the public interest.
Worryingly, over the past year, the authoritative Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports that 50 journalists are known to have been killed, simply while doing their jobs. And the majority of those jobs were not in war zones. In fact, of the 690 journalists known to have been killed over the past 24 years while doing their jobs, only 31% were war casualties. The greater number were murdered, apparently with impunity, while covering politics, investigating corruption and human rights abuses.
South Africa does not feature in these gruesome statistics where Iraq, Philippines, Algeria and Somalia top a list that includes in the top ten Russia, Mexico, Pakistan, India and Brazil. Over the years, the rate of deaths of journalists in some countries has declined, in others, worsened. But there is a trend evident in authorities shutting down reliable, independent information gathering and dissemination and in the murder of “troublesome” journalists.
This is happening in what we could call the spin doctor age where propagandists, as official spokesperson and media officers or as public relations practitioners, far outnumber working journalists. This is also a time when, with the ongoing economic crisis squeezing media outlets, fewer journalists, often young, inexperienced and therefore cheaper, have to work at a pace that makes effective reporting impossible. So there is greater reliance on handouts, on the slick outpourings of the spin doctors.
There is, of course, the internet. And for all its chaos, reliable sources of information can be established and found there amid a welter of spam. But, because time is money and money is necessary for survival, such outlets often struggle and are frequently under financial pressure that may lead, at best, to elements of self censorship (“We have to keep the donors happy”).
At times such as these, it should be beholden on every organised civic grouping, be it religious, sporting, neighbourhood or trade union, to call for and support the free flow of accurate, responsible information; information that relies on thoroughly interrogated and verified facts. Only two rules should apply: has every possible means been taken to check the truth of the facts presented and, is such information in the public interest? Where any errors are subsequently shown to exist, they should promptly be corrected.
Exposing corruption, private or public, and the effects of official policies are matters clearly in the public interest. Not in the public interest would be exposing the private lives of individuals whose actions have no impact on wider society. In a homophobic environment, naming an individual simply for the fact of being in a homosexual relationship could clearly be seen as malicious. On the other hand, if that individual was a prominent campaigner against homosexuality, then such hypocrisy should be exposed.
Journalists should be the eyes and ears of the public at large and that places a very specific responsibility on them: to favour only the pursuit of the truth. This implies not allowing — so far as is possible — personal beliefs and prejudices to influence the facts and their presentation. Therefore, to do their jobs responsibly and well, journalists should be egalitarians, regarding all of humanity as having an equal right to information and its dissemination. That is the goal to be aimed at, even if only seldom achieved.
Journalists should also accept that truth is an elusive concept; that more information and greater insights can sometimes radically alter a current truth. To paraphrase a Biblical dictum, Journalists should live, knowing that only the continual pursuit of truth can set everyone free.
And it is that same wider public that journalists are obliged to serve, that should provide the support and protection for journalists and their craft. Without such symbiosis, a “post truth” world will become a reality to the detriment of humanity.