Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Is our journalism going to the dogs?

The ongoing coverage of a private conversation on social media platform between a local journalist; Monkagedi Gaotlhobogwe and his companion 360 degrees has brought to the fore of debate central issues regarding the ethical conduct of those in the business of gathering news versus the reliability of sources of news they often quote for their readers. Furthermore, those who treasure the role of the fourth estate have been gravely concerned at the probability of espionage infiltrating the newsroom. A myriad of ethical issues must be pulled together to help us see where the problem lies.  

Brown envelope Journalism This type of news reporting compromises the credibility of journalists in that while they are employed as reporters to inform the general public, educate citizens on public policy and investigate stories to serve the public good so individuals can make informed decisions; these journalists find themselves owing allegiance to an external institution or power other than the media house they work for, resulting in the compromise to balance their news content. Usually, it is because such reporters are compensated quite heftily by those outside powers for giving them blanket immunity against bad media publicity.   Botswana journalists are no exception as this malpractice is rampant throughout the world especially in the developing media landscape, where salaries of journalists are regarded as low and unattractive. But sometimes it is not just about low salaries, it is the motivation of those venturing into journalismÔÇödo they believe in telling facts and reporting the truth no matter who it affects? Often the challenge lies when journalists believe certain people must be provided with blanket immunity from the media. Any journalist knows of someone who wields power who does not fancy bad publicity, and the scenario gets worse if the media executives subscribe to such a belief.   Here in Botswana, once upon a time, a multimillionaire threatened the publisher of a reputable publication with an advertising ban because there was a story that cast him in bad light. But the reporter did not stretch the facts and had afforded the multimillionaire the right of reply, only he could not contradict the truth as someone’s life was adversely affected. Yet the tycoon wanted to kill the story.

So, when it finally came out, he dialled the number of the Managing Editor and threatened to withhold advertisement his businesses were giving to the news establishment. The immediate action to keep the business was to deploy a fairly senior reporter to get the story of the millionaire so that a one-sided version could be shared with the nation.  The media in the developing nations face this dilemma between having to be true and ethical on one hand and appeasing the egos of those with dollar power or political power to manipulate the news. Conglomerates and successful business owners are in the habit of this practice to compromise the standards of journalism. It is not only pitiful, but also immoral that an owner of a chicken farm, who has no safe way of ensuring that the intestines of the birds he slaughters in their thousands a day are disposed of without causing the neighbours distress with flies and stench, but he quickly offers a journalist some chickens to take home to prevent the interview from happening. This is what the filthy rich people can do and expect to get away with especially in Africa. Remember Ken Saro Wiwa and why he died?   Journalism is under siege once editors and gatekeepers of media houses side with those flaunting power whether political or financial because any investigative journalists’ stories will certainly not see the light of day. Journalism is not about destroying careers of others, and no ethical journalist will invest time in ensuring the downfall of a fellow personÔÇöhowever, if success has been attained unscrupulously, I don’t hold it true that the journalist is spiteful or malicious to launch investigations so the news can be fed the nation. Remember every human being is inspired by those people who have made it in life, and if all along one has been receiving limelight for his success, should it not be equally appropriate to reveal that we have been celebrating a fa├ºade? In fact, doing so can also serve as instruction for those who might be following in the pathway of deceit to know that lies have short legs. This is not pulling down those who have succeed at life.  

Confidential Sources However, a newspaper risks its credibility each time it bases a news report on the word of unnamed sources. Readers can’t independently evaluate the veracity of unidentified sources. Stories may lose their vitality and punch because they substitute faceless “sources” for real subjects with real problems and questions. And when we don’t name our sources, we leave room for our readers to wonder whether we just made the whole thing up.   Particularly problematic is when news sources reveal details that are quite damning and at times put a nail on someone’s coffin, rendering him a ‘dead man walking’. A respectable print media house won’t habitually write damaging stories about personalities basing their sources on faceless characters just to abuse the confidential source observed in journalism. If stories based on information from anonymous sources turn out to be wrong or unbalanced, the newspaper winds up losing its readers’ trust. In short: unnamed sources are best avoided, particularly where the information they provide is somehow accusatory.   In the rare instance where we feel the need to use unnamed sources in print, we should seek other corroborating, independent sources for the information. We should avoid the use of unnamed sources in a story, in print, unless:
    ÔÇó    We are convinced the information is of paramount importance to our readers.     ÔÇó    We believe the sources are reliable and truthful and have reason to know what they’re talking about.     ÔÇó    We have no other practical means of getting at the information.

  Confidential sources in print should be considered our last resort, to be used when all other means fail and only in the context of a very important story. For that reason, our guidelines for their use amount to a high hurdle.   Undercover Journalism Journalism in the public interest can be a dodgy business. Sometimes, when all else fails, to get their story reporters may have to use undercover techniques. For example, in the United States, the Associated Pressissued a stinging rebuke of the FBI when it was reported that an FBI agent impersonated an Associated Press journalists in 2007 with the goal of entrapping a suspect who made bomb threats.   The objective was to have the suspect click on a fake news link, at which point the FBI could upload software into the suspect’s computer. Through this undercover work, they were able to track the location and arrest the juvenile.   “In stealing our identity, the FBI tarnishes [AP’s] reputation, belittles the value of the free press rights enshrined in our Constitution and endangers AP journalists and other newsgatherers around the world,” AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt wrote in an open letter. “This deception corrodes the most fundamental tenet of a free press ÔÇô our independence from government control and corollary responsibility to hold government accountable.”  

He’s right, of course, but so is James Comly, The Director of the FBI, who defended the acts of the investigation. “That technique was proper and appropriate under Justice Department and F.B.I. guidelines at the time. Today, the use of such an unusual technique would probably require higher level approvals than in 2007, but it would still be lawful and, in a rare case, appropriate.”   Both sides argue passionately in defence of the public interest. Sometimes, whether it is for crime fighting, or for exposing corruption, when all other lines of inquiry have failed, it may be necessary to use subterfuge. But the cases in which this is truly justified are rare.   On the other hand, there is the case, in London, of the “Fake Sheikh” which highlights the dangers of subterfuge without an ethical base to justify the means of deception. Reporter Mazher Mahmood would go undercover as Arab royalty for the purpose of setting up people to commit criminal acts and then wrote about the fallout in News of The World. This is seen by many as simply entrapment; a journalist encouraging someone to break the law for the purposes of securing a story.   More directly, sometimes a journalist may pretend to be someone else ÔÇô a public official or an interested party ÔÇô to overcome state control of access to official information or to areas cordoned off from public view.   In South Africa, during the years of Apartheid, some courageous journalists secretly and illegally recorded meetings of army officers of the white regime, or pretended to be white racists to attend private political events to get access to vital information about the war against the black liberation movement.   Even journalists have been stung by other journalists using subterfuge. Some years ago in Germany the journalists of the tabloid Bild Zeitung were furious when investigative reporter Gunther Walraff, a specialist in cloak-and-dagger journalism, went undercover and joined their news staff just to expose the paper’s questionable journalistic techniques.   The latter scenario seems to resonate closely with the expos├® recently splashed on the front covers of our national newspapers. The question to ask is whether Monkagedi Gaotlhobogwe was done justice or not by someone who paraded as a Facebook pal only to get him to spill the beans about his strongly held views with respect to his employer.  

Firstly, this was a private conversation between two individuals. But it is also true that while Monkagedi Gaotlhobogwe knew his identity was clearly marked, he had the trust to reveal deep-seated convictions to someone who only identified himself as 360 degrees. You be the judge on what you make of Monkagedi Gaotlhobogwe in that particular situation. But he is not bothered and an average journalist working for the print media would probably have reacted similarly. There is a reason many journalists can be misled into conversations of this kindÔÇöthey place high premium on faceless sources and they almost always never verify sources to corroborate the authenticity of the facts being reported. Our journalists are in a hurry to scoop each other, thus they package half-baked stories that often are without depth in terms of investigation and research.   Journalists need to bear in mind that news content is and should be based on trust in the relationship.



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