“ETHICS in the Profession of Journalism: The Value-added Benefits for National Development.”
By Richard Prince
For delivery Sept. 14, 2010
Terra Nova Hotel, Kingston, Jamaica
To members of the Jamaica Broilers Group, distinguished guests and fellow journalists. Congratulations on the 10th anniversary of the “Fair Play” awards.
Aug. 29. The fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
Editors at the newspapers in the Gulf Coast were describing how they coped with the devastation. Stan Tiner, the editor in Biloxi, Miss., told how retired journalists came back to pitch in. “This is why we got into the business,” they said.
Those words — “this is why we got into the business” — resonated with me.
So I ask you. Why did we get into the business? To expose corruption. Wrongdoing, To tell the truth. Maybe to ask questions we’d never
get to ask otherwise. To meet people we’d never run across.
For example, let’s talk about coverage of the Dudus Coke case, I was glad to see this paragraph in the Christian Science Monitor in May:
(quote) “The trigger for the current violent showdown was the Jamaican press.
On May 17, [Prime Minister] Golding was forced to give a nationally
televised speech after the press discovered he had hired a powerful Washington lobbying firm to help fight Coke’s extradition. . . .
” . . . Golding’s embarrassing television mea culpa was what forced Golding to finally give in to US pressure to extradite Coke, according to
Jamaican press reports.” (end quote)
Let me quote another American press observer, Ellen Hume:
“Information is power. If a nation is to enjoy the political and
economic advantages enabled by the rule of law, powerful institutions
must be open to scrutiny by the people. If technology and science are
to advance, ideas must be openly shared.” (End quote)
That is our charge.
And yet, I’m told there were lapses in the coverage of the highly
emotional Coke case. Soldiers and police were concerned about their faces being shown. Their families were afraid of retribution. There were whispers that some reporters could be identified as favoring one political party or the other, or were too close to Coke.
Did journalists know more than they were writing about? Did they benefit from his largess?
Were some on his payroll?
These are questions you don’t want people asking.
So there are two points I want to stress to you:
Hold the media accountable, and hold yourself accountable.
While journalism is a noble calling, the temptations to compromise on
ethical issues are real. Let’s face it: the pay is relatively low. There are reports that some people have sold themselves to the highest bidder; that payola exists even in journalism. I’ve heard that some people the public thinks are journalists are only masquerading; that they are paid to write pieces favoring the person who’s paying.
And that this goes on sometimes with the complicity of the media
I hope they’re wrong.
But journalists don’t operate in a vacuum. Many of you work in an environment devoid of ethics in other arenas: government, private
industry, even in media organizations.
It reminds me of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If.”
“If you can keep your head when all about you/ are losing theirs and blaming it on you . . . then you’ll be a man, my son.”
I am pleased to see that Jamaicans have subscribed to codes of ethics,
some of them international, but also inclusive of the long-time Code
of Ethics crafted by the Press Association of Jamaica. These are important: They let others around the world know you are serious.
But these codes must be brought to life in our everyday lives.
One way to help this along is for us in the media to start reporting on ourselves in the media. There are two ways I suggest we do this.
1. Make the media a beat that is regularly covered – all the time . . . all the time. Media monitoring.
2. Install a public editor, or an ombudsman, who is the readers’ or viewers’ or listeners’ representative.
One reason I’m enthusiastic about this idea is that this is what I do. I know first hand. I write a column three times a week about the media. I love it, and people tell me it makes a difference.
Desmond Allen used to write a regular column called “The Spike” that
looked at inaccuracies observed at various media houses… and
which also dealt with some readers’ queries. He is a former president of the Press Association of Jamaica and a former “Fair Play award” winner. But his column no longer appears on a regular basis.
We need more such columns.
There are many, many issues to write about, and because of Jamaica’s position as the recipient of news from international sources, some of them cross national boundaries.
One issue: What has become, and not only in the States, the civil rights issue of the decade:
In March, the District of Columbia for the first time issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples, some of whom married in ceremonies across the city — from a court chamber to a Unitarian church.
The Washington Post ran this on its March 4 front page: two men kissing. They had just gotten married. When asked, the Post’s editor, Marcus Brauchli, said there was not much discussion at the day’s news meeting about whether to run that photo. All the editors agreed that that was the news of the day.
I don’t mind telling you the photo was a little disturbing to see at breakfast. We all know that same-sex marriage is a contentious issue. But in the end, I was proud that the Post stuck by its standards and did not play it “safe.”
It decided that the news comes first.
In a society such as Jamaica, where anti-homosexual expression seems to be more vocal than in many other places, a media critic would ask:
Are the media leading on this issue, or following? Are they being courageous, or cowardly?
He or she might wonder aloud, when people look back on this period, will the media have been on the right side or the wrong side of history?
After all, we’ve just gone through a period in the United States where many Southern newspapers are atoning for their roles in resisting integration and the Civil Rights Movement.
Sex can be one of those polarizing issues, and I’m not just talking about homosexuality. The American Academy of Pediatrics has just reported that, quote, “New evidence points to the media [that our] adolescents use frequently (television, music, movies, magazines, and the Internet) as important factors in the initiation of sexual intercourse,”
“Television, film, music, and the Internet are all becoming increasingly sexually explicit, yet information on abstinence, sexual responsibility, and birth control remains rare.” (end quote)
The Jamaica Broadcasting Commission has issued guidelines about broadcasting explicit lyrics and that there is concern about “daggering” and other sexually charged dancing. (In my day, all we did was slow-dance.) But how did it come to this?
Were the media being responsible enough in the first place, or did the government overreact?
That’s another topic to consider — and to monitor.
As the pediatricians pointed out, the media affect what we and our children believe to be normal and acceptable.
Along with sex comes violence.
Last month in Nigeria, the Daily Independent ran a piece by Azuka Onwuka that observed, (quote) “Except for a few media houses, display of gory pictures is normal in the Nigerian media. It is our way of proving that our story is authentic; it is also our way of attracting readers and viewers. There seems to be something morbid about us. Nothing shocks us anymore. From childhood, we watch as pickpockets are beaten to pulp and set ablaze on the streets. We watch as the corpses of pedestrians knocked down by hit-and-run drivers on the highways are crushed and flattened by other on-coming vehicles. . . .
“It is important that all media houses should self-regulate themselves to ensure that we are not seen as sub-human by the rest of the world because of the pictures we display on our news pages or screen.” (end quote)
I’m a believer in the idea that you are what you read, hear and see. If the media lower the level of public discourse, that’s an ethical issue. Critics in the media, such as this fellow in Nigeria, should be the first ones to speak out.
Outside of the social realm, there are legal issues for media writers to address.
I came across an article in the Gleaner that called the Official Secrets Act (quote) “One of the last vestiges of colonialism in Jamaica.” (End quote.)
The Official Secrets Act of 1911, inherited from England, should be repealed. It is absurd that the disclosure of information already in the public domain is a crime regardless.
Moreover, it stands in conflict with the Access to Information Act, which has provided the news media with documents that enable it to fulfill its watchdog role. I say this even though I know that the Media Association of Jamaica – which counts some of you as members — still has complained about bureaucratic difficulties in accessing information.
The fact that the libel laws have not kept up with the times is another ticking time bomb.
Fortunately for us in America, in 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a public official suing for defamation must prove that press reports about public officials or public figures must be made with actual malice before they can be considered to be defamatory or libelous.
But this ruling is applicable only in the United States. Yet Jamaica receives broadcasts from American and British television. What might not be libelous in the States could be libelous here, even though Jamaica has no control over what the Americans are broadcasting.
This must change.
In an international environment, Jamaica’s laws on libel should be in harmony with those whose broadcasts it receives. Let’s talk about fairness.
This is especially true with the increased use of the Internet. With greater use of wireless technology, Internet use will expand exponentially. Jamaican news publications originate in Jamaica, but the majority of their online audience is elsewhere, where different laws may apply.
Greater use of the Internet means more blogs. More information. More points of view. Greater lack of discipline and ethical issues that include disrespect of copyrights.
The laws must ensure that copyrighted work is not published willy-nilly, without authorization or compensation.
Don’t rip me off!
Our ethics laws must keep up with the technology, and our media monitors should be checking to see that Jamaica is prepared for the changes to come.
The big issue among those concerned about the future of the Internet is called “net neutrality.”
What is that, you say? Let me tell you:
One of the proponents of this concept, Brian Palantz, explains it this way:
“When you surf the web and notice some sites load slower than others, you mutter to yourself, ‘the server’s overcrowded.’ It would never occur to you that your favorite sites are slow because you haven’t paid a premium monthly fee to visit them. But imagine an internet based on the model of pay-TV, in which certain profitable sites come with the basic service, and other sites only load if you are willing to pay.”
Needless to say, this is an issue that will affect people using the Internet wherever they are in the world, and so our Jamaican media critics — and their bosses — would do themselves credit to be current on this issue.
It could affect how easily people will get to see your work when it goes online.
When I mentioned media monitoring, I said there were actually two ways I think this could be done.
News organizations can employ their own designated media reporters, who even cover their own news organizations, and they can install ombudsmen — reader representatives.
There is an international association of these people, the Organization of News Ombudsmen — and this is how they define the job:
“A news ombudsman receives and investigates complaints from newspaper readers or listeners or viewers of radio and television stations about accuracy, fairness, balance and good taste in news coverage. He or she recommends appropriate remedies or responses to correct or clarify news reports.”
Having an ombudsman requires a commitment on the part of the news organization’s owner. Many ombudsmen have contracts that say that their critiques cannot be edited by management, and many of them have called out their own news organization when they felt the organization had gone astray.
For example, the publisher of the Washington Post, on the job just a few months, found herself scolded by the ombudsman when she decided to host “salons” that gave the appearance that guests were paying for access to the paper’s news staff.
People are still talking about it. What a baptism of fire!
I started out this talk by mentioning reasons why people in the news media might be lured by temptation. Low pay, going along to get along, or perhaps the most damning of all — “we’ve always done it this way.”
So why bother with trying to improve ethics?
One very real reason is that you want to keep the government from stepping in and trying to do it for you.
That’s not to be underestimated.
I know that some of the other islands already have media complaint commissions.
But to me, it has to do with your own personal integrity, as well as the integrity of the organization you work for.
You want both sides of an issue to be able to trust you.
You want your peers to respect you, at home and abroad.
Remember, I talked about those retired news people who helped out after Hurricane Katrina, who said, “This is why we got into the business in the first place.”
Another journalist, from the New Orleans Times-Picayune, James O’Byrne, was with the art critic for the paper, Doug MacCash. He wrote:
“While Doug and I rode along the edge of Lakeview that Monday in
August,” he wrote, “we came upon a bridge where firemen had pulled about 40 people off of their roofs and out of their second stories. And when we, two scruffy reporters from the local newspaper, arrived on that bridge,
the people there were simply thrilled to see us. And I thought to
myself, how can they possibly be happy? They’re stranded, surrounded
by water, and have just lost everything. But what became apparent was
this: the local newspaper had arrived, and that was enough for them.
It meant their story was going to be told. That was everything to
We are journalists.
It’s a tremendous responsibility we’ve been given. We’ve got to live up to it.
Hold the media accountable. Hold yourself accountable.
This is why we got into the business.