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I, the media!

Indy Media came up with a brilliant line which I have quoted many times over the past 10 years: ‘BE THE MEDIA!’ What it means is that anyone and everyone can be the media, or to be more precise, be a media person, a journalist, as long as the person concerned has eyes that see that which is apparent and that which is not, ears that listen as well as hear, tongues that can turn word and in this and other ways communicate and share. Indy Media, in this call, says nothing of integrity or stands. I believe this is what has served to wreck the notion of media freedom.

Some years ago, a Sunday paper wrote, editorially, that one can’t expect anything more than third rate journalism when there’s a fifth rate media policy. That’s dumbing-down by conviction and an utterly cop-out kind of response. The quality of a particular media policy or the lack thereof, to be precise, is hardly an excuse for poor quality journalism.

The question is what makes ‘good quality’ in journalism? One could make a list and shake it many times, but the bottom line is ‘integrity’ I think. There’s no such thing as objectivity, no such thing as neutrality, of course, but there can be honesty, statement of bias, clarity when it comes to stating preferred outcome etc. No, such things are not limited to comments. They apply to ‘news’, the telling of stories, the ‘what happened’, the ‘who’, the ‘where’, the ‘when’ etc., because there is politics and there is bias in choice of lead story, wording of news story, placement, prominence given, what’s included and what’s left out, and whether or not the counterpoint if such there could be is solicited and/or obtained.

I am not much of a news person. Indeed, my first newspaper boss, Manik De Silva, who is still the editor of the Sunday Island, did his best to give me some basic skills in reporting. He would lament, ‘you don’t have a nose for news’. However, there were times when I was sent, reluctantly, to cover media conferences because there was no one else around; sometimes by Manik and sometimes by the editor of the daily version of the newspaper, Gamini Weerakoon (Gamma). I remember attending such a media conference chaired by the late Lakshman Kadirgamar. This was during the time Ranil Wickremesinghe was Prime Minister and the SLFP was in the Opposition. I came back and wrote the story, but after consulting the most senior journalist/reporter around, Shamindra Ferdinando, who not only helped craft the copy but picked some pertinent point from his phenomenal memory to give an added dimension to it.

A few days later, Gamma came to me with a letter from Mr. Kadirgamar. Mr. Kadirgamar had commended the newspaper for carrying the most accurate representation of what was said at the media conference and for bringing into the story an additional fact that gave context to it. He had asked Gamma to thank the journalist concerned. I told Gamma that the credit should go to Shamindra. Gamma promptly handed the letter to him.

A few minutes later, Shamindra came to me and said ‘Thank you machang; in most cases people wouldn’t do what you did. They would let the editor think they deserved praise.’ I am no saint, but I really didn’t see what the big deal was in being honest about what happened.

I believe the media has an important role to play. I believe that we, as a tribe, fall short less because of draconian laws or sinister forces working outside the law but because we slip and are not really bothered by slippage. We get up and carry on regardless.

I remember a case where a couple of journalists of a newspaper ganged up to get rid of a colleague. The gang (of two, essentially) used the institutional power at its disposal to arm-twist all other colleagues to sign a petition against the person they wanted kicked out. Everyone except two (one was out of the country and the other refused on pain of punishment and was duly punished) signed. The drivers of that institute had told a couple of the (unwilling) signatories ‘don’t write about injustice again; you don’t have the moral authority to do so after having signed that petition’.

I am not pointing fingers. I am not perfect. I believe, however, that we shoot ourselves in our feet when we refuse to acknowledge error. We make it difficult for our tribe when we accept with or without glee things that do not belong to us or worse, belong to someone else. We make it easier for those forces determined to gag us when we lie, when we praise without qualification those who do not deserve praise, when we reward incompetence and the mischievous and when we remain silent when we are confronted with enough proof to show that we have erred, i.e. when we let our pride and our egos get in the way.

There’s a beautiful Latin saying: ‘Palmam qui meruit ferat’. It means, ‘Let him who has earned it bear the reward.’ I’ve heard another version: he who deserves the crown shall wear it. What of those who are crowned but are undeserving, though? We like to think we are kings and judges. We are not. We could be, but we are not.

The bottom line of journalism is credibility. Each time we slip, each time we err but refuse to acknowledge erring and slippage, we make it harder for people to believe us. We sell facts and opinions. If our product is suspect, our relevancy declines. We make it possible for others to lie and get away.

We can’t point fingers at those who would happily lie to the world if we ourselves are little liars or are engaged in tweaking the truth for political gain. I think we don’t reflect enough about ourselves and this makes it that much more difficult to do the good that we can do. I am going to meditate on two words: ethics and bias.

By Malinda Seneviratne
Courtesy: AdaDerana

Posted on Wednesday, August 04, 2010 @ 11:37:13 LKT by

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