Journalism is more than ‘just a job’

Posted on January 22, 2020


Journalism is not “just a job”. It is the only craft where the practitioners operate as the eyes and ears of the public at large. As such, the job description of journalism is the uncovering and reporting of facts that are of interest and use to that public; and that these are relayed as honestly and truthfully as possible.

Critical thinking, therefore, is the single most important skill for the journalist. It is also critical for every human being to master, and journalism can play a part in encouraging this. As the American sociologist William Sumner perceptively noted: “[Critical thinking] is our only guarantee against delusion, deception, superstition, and misapprehension of ourselves and our earthly circumstances.”

The essence of sound journalistic practice, therefore, is to question everything and to think critically about every event and incident and about the environment in which these occur. This means never accepting at face value the truth of previous published or accepted facts. The “menace of the morgue”, the reliance on the clippings library (whether digitised or in paper form) as a primary source of background information, looms large here. In this way, errors of the past are repeated and sometimes compounded.

A similar situation applies within academe, where there is a perhaps even greater reliance on justifying positions and assumptions by reference to earlier texts. And this also finds its way into journalism, sometimes in the acceptance of academic “facts” which, on closer inspection, are shown to be spurious.

A classic example, which still persists today, is the acceptance without question of the validity of IQ testing, where no satisfactory definition exists about what is being tested. The “father” of such testing, at the start of the last century, was Sir Cyril Burt . He was central to initiating what became an IQ industry that had profound effects on the lives of millions of people, in terms not only of schooling, but also immigration. English language IQ tests, for example, barred thousands of European refugees from the United States in the first quarter of the last century because they were deemed “feeble minded” for failing the tests.

A row still rages in academic circles about whether Burt was merely careless with his data or committed fraud. Although journalist Oliver Gillies exposed the evidence of Burt’s “fakery” in the London Sunday Times in 1976, most journalists and editors today probably still accept without question that intelligence is a known element that can be accurately tested by means of “IQs”.

Another difficulty facing journalists is how imagery, language and other aspects of culture come into the interpretation and transmission of “facts”. This is graphically summed up in the 1929 painting The Treachery of Images by the Belgian artist, Rene Magritte.

He painted a realistic representation of a briar tobacco pipe, with an inscribed caption in French, Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe). This may be seen as a witty comment on the difference between the real and the representational, the painting being a picture of a pipe. But it is also an example of the sort of sexual innuendo indulged in by other painters such as Braque and Picasso during their cubist periods, highlighting problems of interpretation: in colloquial French, “pipe” means penis.

Either way of assessing the painting is valid. But the assessments point to the fact that the image and the caption are open to a variety of interpretations and confusions depending on the linguistic and cultural background of whoever is viewing them. This has a particular resonance for us in South Africa where we have 11 official languages, a low level of literacy and diverse ways (cultures) of assessing reality.

Taking account of these pitfalls and problems, journalists have to gather, analyse and transmit to the wider public, information that is necessary, of interest and understandable to that public. Ideally this should involve incidents and developments which the journalist, as the audience representative, knows, through awareness of the audience, are regarded as important or critical.

On all these matters, the journalist should report as accurately and analytically as possible.
In other words, the journalist should be as objective as possible in reporting the facts and make clear — again so far as is possible — where subjective opinion intervenes. This should be the goal of every journalistic exercise. However, it is all too often evident that this goal is ignored; that, in practice, many of the “facts” we are faced with amount merely to the regurgitating of slick public relations “spin” or the repetition of prejudices.

Perhaps the best description of “objective” journalism comes from the American investigative reporter, T. D. Allman: “Genuinely objective journalism not only gets the facts right, it gets the meaning of events right. It is compelling, not only today, but stands the test of time. It is validated not only by ‘reliable sources’, but by the unfolding of history. It is journalism that, ten, twenty, fifty years after the fact still holds up a true and intelligent mirror to events.”

For good journalism is a record of human history; it describes in the present, the roots of the future and, in the process, hopefully educates those who will make realistic and practical contributions to the way forward for a neighbourhood, a community, a region, nation or even the world.

It sounds like a huge responsibility, but it is one that can be borne lightly once it is understood and committed to. What it does require is that journalists discuss and commit themselves to a code of practice, and to the honest pursuit of truth.

This is a sometimes difficult path to tread when faced with pressure from editors, advertisers, media owners and, all too often, politicians and governments. But it is a path worth holding to.

Posted in: Commentary