This is an open letter to my colleagues in Trinidad and Tobago – Alison Bethel McKenzie | Executive Director, The International Press Institute (IPI).
It is not a secret that Trinidad and Tobago boasts one of the freest environments for the media in the Caribbean and, I would dare say, in the Americas. That many countries in the region continue to repress the media is, though, deeply troubling.
With media freedom comes responsibility, not statutory responsibility as defined by governments seeking to limit independent reporting, but voluntary standards and ethical practices rigorously adhered to by journalists who are proud of their profession and the fundamental standards of accuracy, fairness and balance it must at all times uphold.
In my focus on press freedom and best journalistic practices in Trinidad and Tobago, I am served by my decades of experience as a journalist and editor in Africa, the Caribbean and the United States.
Throughout the Americas, in a digital age marked by virtually instantaneous sharing through a breathtaking variety of cutting-edge platforms of information gathered in an array of innovative ways, citizens are increasingly demanding accurate, fair and, in particular, independent news coverage. Theirs is a quest for information.
Journalists embracing this challenge still face, of course, daunting hurdles across the continent. Because there is resistance—stiff resistance—from those who have much to lose; from those whose power and wealth was amassed through undemocratic, often illegal, means.
The threats to journalists come not just in the form of outright physical assault and murder. Just think of investigative reporters who do research on the doings of businessmen or political candidates, often subjecting them to deserved public scrutiny, and yet who find themselves targeted with criminal defamation suits and other trumped up charges that may even include terrorism. It’s often a hefty price that they pay for such efforts.
The answer to these challenges is courage, professionalism and integrity. Much of this comes through training. But reporters, editors, and, crucially, publishers must be fully committed to integrity-driven, prideful, professional reporting.
Rumours can fuel unrest, violence and killing. Journalists must stay away from rumours. Instead, they should stay true to the old reporter’s and editor’s maxim: “When in doubt, leave it out.” They should forage for varied sources and voices for their stories and they should shy away from inaccuracies and inflammatory language.
Our colleague, Canadian journalist and media consultant Ross Howard, author of Conflict Sensitive Reporting: A Handbook, notes in his book: “Reliable reporting and responsibly written editorials and opinion do such things as establish communication among disputant parties correct misperceptions and identify underlying interests and offer solutions. The media provides an emotional outlet. It can offer solutions and build confidence.”
This is a view echoed in the words of Lester Markel, editor of The New York Times who more than 60 years ago brought together 15 of his colleagues from across the world to create the IPI, which has been upholding the principles of press freedom, but also of professional, integrity-driven journalism, for 62 years.
In founding IPI, Markel said: “There is a requirement on each of us to advance the cause of journalism wherever it is practised. We should strive to correct the distortions and to dispel the fogs that cloud the relations among countries. We should do our utmost toward that end—for our own sakes, for the sakes of our nations, for the sake of the world. This is what IPI means for every editor.”
Markel spoke of the relations between countries but it is incumbent on each of you as journalists, in your reporting in general and on elections in particular, to advance the cause of journalism, to dispel the fogs that cloud relations among people. Failure to voluntarily adhere to the universal principles of ethical reporting and to the great cause of professional journalism for which so many of our colleagues have given their lives is a betrayal.
A betrayal eloquently, poignantly and movingly summed up by Sir Harold Evans, former editor of the Sunday Times and an IPI member, in honour of IPI’s then-60 World Press Freedom Heroes in Vienna in 2010.
“We should honour them by resolve and by rebuke,” he said. “By the resolve to keep faith ourselves with their best aspirations, and to be forthright in rebuking those who carelessly and ceaselessly do not.
“Every time a reporter slants the facts, writes a story to fit his preconception, allows the ‘unclouded face of truth’ to suffer wrong, he betrays a world press freedom hero. We should tell him or her so.
“Every time a journalist invents a story, fabricates a quote, elevates a personal conviction over a professional curiosity, he betrays ten names on our roll of honour.
“Every time a news organisation puts excessive profit before excellence it betrays every name. We should tell them so.
“Every time a journalist maliciously sets out to destroy a reputation, he dishonours these heroes.
“Every time a journalist in a country with a free press protected by law or tradition abuses the freedom by personal vendetta or political manipulation, he betrays all those around the world who struggle with half the freedoms and to liberate journalism.
“Every time a journalist joins the press pack recycling rumour, trading in second hand sources, accepting the easy feed, grossly invading privacy by telephone bugging of the kind we’ve just seen in London, he betrays the brave individualism of a name on the roll.
“Every time a photographer grossly exploits private grief, he betrays a name.”
Journalists should bear these powerful words in mind.
As the dignified, courageous citizens of Trinidad and Tobago lay claim to their democratic rights and government with accountability it is the duty of journalists to live up to their end of the bargain by staying true, every day, to the universal ideals of the profession.
Alison Bethel McKenzie | Executive Director, The International Press Institute (IPI)