Accuracy, transparency and fairness
Patrick Guntensperger argues that Indonesia is not the only country whose press needs an objectivity check
Saturday, August 5, 2006
By Patrick Guntensperger
Indonesia is far from unique in being a country in which journalists are routinely influenced by their sources or the subjects of their stories. Everywhere in the world, people have a vested interest in seeing that stories are reported in a particular way, or even reported at all.
Everywhere in the world, writers and editors are susceptible to persuasion, whether it is overt or subtle.
A shopping center opening is only news if it is reported. It is only likely to be reported if the media are invited, and it is only likely to enjoy the kind of coverage its investors want if the media enjoy their assignment. To ensure that the media enjoy their assignment, it is absolutely standard practice to provide perks.
These perks can include anything from the standard "goodie bag" full of press releases (marketing material) and product samples (gifts of merchandise) to straightforward cash money in exchange for a positive story (possibly even written by the PR department). While the latter is clearly unethical, the former is so routine that it doesn't even come under scrutiny.
But let's step back for a moment and ask ourselves why this question of journalistic ethics is even important. After all, these are reporters, not public servants. If a reporter takes a bribe from a PR department and then runs a favorable story, who cares?
The PR guy is happy, the reporter augments a traditionally meager income, the editor gets some copy to run, and the public gets a flowery "report" of a trendy new shopping center. It's not like a judge selling a verdict, or a member of the government soliciting a bribe for a vote on some important legislation. Where's the harm?
The standard answer is that the public is harmed. The public is harmed because it becomes impossible to distinguish accurate, objective reporting of a story from a spun piece of self-serving fiction. The standard answer, the one that journalism professors and professional media members will repeat from rote, is that the practice of chequebook journalism diminishes the public's respect for the press's objectivity and therefore diminishes the value of a free press.
But in a world where any thinking person knows that there is no such thing as objectivity anywhere, just how important is the public's belief in the objectivity of the press? One needn't be a media analyst to understand that the writer of a story makes subjective choices with every keystroke, just as an editor imposes his personal views as he cuts, pastes, and rewrites.
The traditional ideal of the perfectly objective recorder of facts is not only pretentious; it is patently false. Every story is influenced by the very fact that it is being reported, whatever the manner in which the facts are related.
The public doesn't believe in the objectivity of the press; it never has, it never will, and it never should. When a reader chooses between The New York Times and The Washington Times at a newsstand, the reader is choosing a bias. Left-lib intellectual, or neo-con? The Manchester Guardian, or the (London) Sun? The Village Voice, or The Wall Street Journal?
Regular readers of any newspaper have some idea of what to expect...that's why they read that particular paper. People tend to gravitate to a news source that reinforces their own biases. So whom are we kidding when we speak about maintaining the objectivity of the press? If objectivity in the media is synonymous with integrity in the media, then the media is utterly devoid of integrity.
The truth is that objectivity is not only an impossible ideal to aspire to; it might not even really be worth the effort. What would make far more sense would be for the press to aspire to accuracy, to fairness, to even-handedness, and to transparency. These at least, are attainable aspirations.
Accuracy should be a fundamental; it can never be an absolute, but it must be strived for with every professional breath a journalist draws. Check the facts; check the dates, the numbers, the spelling of names. Verify, confirm, and reconfirm. Don't report it as fact unless it is absolutely certain to be true. Any media outlet that doesn't follow these basic steps puts the reputation of the press in far more serious jeopardy than does the reporter who gets a free dinner from a source.
Fairness? Even-handedness? This is a matter of recognizing that every source is biased, and that every journalist and every journal is biased as well. To be even-handed in reporting a story means taking the extra step, the step that might undermine the reporter's own biases, and getting alternative views on the record along with the primary source's views.
As all reporters are humans, with human predispositions and prejudices, this is perhaps the hardest thing for a reporter to do. It's what separates the professional from the hack, the journalist of courage and integrity from the rank and file.
Transparency? This ought to be the easiest of all to attain. Transparency in journalism means exposing your prejudices, declaring your biases, making your personal point of view evident. With this kind of transparency in journalism, a reporter, indeed a media outlet, can have it both ways.
Reporting can be done with a bias and with integrity at the same time, if the bias is acknowledged. Nobody believes in the press's objectivity anyway, so declaring it and making it manifest would only increase the journalist's credibility.
Which would be more honest? A worshipful story about a fabulous new shopping center, or precisely the same story with a final paragraph listing the gifts that were given to the reporter? Now ask yourself: If the reporter were required to include that list of inducements, is it likely that the story would be written in the same way? Probably not.
The story would probably be less effusively positive, more balanced. Most people would venture to say that if a reporter were required to expose his/her biases, he/she would be likely to write a more even-handed story, even if only to appear unswayed by mere filthy lucre.
People will always try to persuade journalists to see things their way. Journalists will always have their personal views. If the industry really wants to increase the public's respect for journalists, the answer lies not in pretending to the false ideal of objectivity, but, rather, to the genuine ideals of accuracy, fairness, and transparency.
The writer is a Jakarta based political risk analyst. He has been a professional journalist either full time or as a sideline for over 25 years. He may be reached at email@example.com.
Date Posted: 8/5/2006