I was recently asked to train a group of journalists in the basics of news reporting. Even though none of the trainees had received any formal journalism training, most of them were smart young reporters with the experience of working in newsrooms for a few years at least. We were going over basic techniques; how to gather and present news, how to cover disasters via team reporting, how to conduct an interview, how to write business stories and so on.
One afternoon I asked the class to go out into the city on Independence Day and gather comments from people on the street about how they’re celebrating this year. As I explained the assignment, I was deeply involved in talking about the importance of being observant, taking accurate notes and writing descriptions. A student interrupted to say he normally just makes up the person-on-the-street comments for stories he writes at his newspaper. I thought it was a joke in poor taste so I mustered a weak smile and continued on. Then, a second student said he doesn’t just make up the comments, he invents the person altogether. I felt like someone had pummeled me straight in the face. I asked the rest of the class if anyone else had ever manufactured comments or people. Nearly the entire group raised their hands.
I was really at a loss where to go next. I couldn’t get my head around the fact that so very casually, laughingly, journalists could say they invented material that was presented to the public as the truth. In utter exasperation, I explained that journalists cannot do that. I felt like a complete imbecile even saying that. Well, obviously journalists can’t make information up. Later, while sharing this trauma with my co-instructor, he aptly said that it was as if someone is challenging the concept of gravity; so ingrained and holy are these concepts to us as journalists.
The class was less than impressed with my shock and aggravation. “This is Pakistan, it happens all the time,” one student said as the others nodded keenly. What a completely lame excuse. If we aspired to higher standards, why would this happen all the time or be considered the norm? The students just shrugged.
When designing the course, my co-instructor and I had thought it appropriate and relevant to include a session on ethics for journalists. We decided to include this segment in the form of both a lecture and case study assignments for in-class discussion, given the current environment in which journalists work in Pakistan. In that session, I explained that the very first step is for a journalist to WANT to be ethical. Journalists are faced with difficult and complex situations on a regular basis and often there’s no one right way; the issue is fuzzy and the options varied. However, if journalists aspire always to be honest, fair and balanced, that sincerity will lead them towards the best decision.
We discussed various ethical issues: being sensitive when covering victims, actively thinking about whether you’re being sensational and not using deceitful means to obtain information. We also talked about conflicts of interest. Journalists covering business should never buy shares to ensure their reporting on companies and their stock price is always fair and free of bias. Reporters should never go on free trips. Instead, if there is reporting value in a visit arranged by a company, the reporter’s news organisation should pay its own way. News professionals should not make friends of the people they cover; it is inevitable then for bias to creep in. And journalists should never accept gifts; even when no ill is intended, the receiving of a gift can create the perception of bias.
To my surprise, the class was stunned to hear all this. I was stunned they had never been told these things by their editors or indeed that they had never sought any guidance or considered these issues themselves. Perhaps, I should not have been so shocked. After all, we work in an environment where it is not uncommon for reporters to exhibit behaviour that is arrogant and insensitive. Most routinely harangue people they interview with the aim of not seeking information, but winning some imaginary war. And many display PRESS stickers on their vehicles and use press identification to threaten policemen, who dare stop them for traffic violations. As if journalists are above the need to be polite, decent or lawful.
It is our collective responsibility, both as journalists who have been around for a while and as the public who receives the news product, to help promote and demand higher standards of journalism. The concepts of integrity, above all, fairness, accuracy and balance must be firmly ingrained in the journalists of today who are working in an environment where there is little value or attachment to these principles and where the race to beat rivals on delivering the news has taken precedence over moral wisdom.
News organisations must begin to bear this burden as well. Clearly, money is being spent in the contest to become the biggest and the best. Some of this must go towards training. Some newspapers and television channels are involved in training efforts, but a lot of this is technical in nature. A big step back is vital; the new and growing crop of reporters and editors must be trained in the very basics: the role of a journalist in society and the crucial value of reliability and integrity. Journalists must be made aware of basic ethics and must receive sustained guidance and support on how best to take decisions that ensure credibility. Quaint as it may sound, without this, what is all the fuss really about?
Published in The Express Tribune, August 29th, 2015.
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