Mental floss for the discerning
24 July 2014 18:49 (South Africa)
Opinionista Michelle Solomon

Free, responsible media is about public interest AND public trust

  • Michelle Solomon
Media responsibility and public trust in the media are similar to the adage of the chicken and the egg. But it’s not so much a question of which comes first, but rather that the one simply cannot exist without the other.

The post-Polokwane years have seen a rise in threats against media freedom in South Africa. And those petitioning for a media appeals tribunal and the Protection of Information Act frequently cite bad journalistic behaviour as a good reason for state regulation. Consequently, the South African media has been filled with rhetoric decrying state regulation of the press.

The main reason for a free media, the media argues, is its critical role to protect the “public interest” and uphold democracy. The watchdog role of the press is fundamental, as is the belief the media is the only institution with the power to fulfil such a role. This “elevates the press to the highest rung on society’s organisational chart and anoints it as the public’s representative,” writes Lee Bollinger, Columbia University president and freedom of speech scholar.  Stephanie Craft argues that if the media has special constitutional protections, then “it is not unreasonable to suggest that the press likewise has special, corresponding duties”.

Craft referred to the World War II Hutchinson Commission, or “The Commission on Freedom of the Press”, which was convened in 1947 to assess the role of the media in society. The commission was headed by Time magazine founder Henry Luce and Robert Hutchins, who expressed fears that journalism in the US may require government intervention. This was apparently after media monopolies, poor service and perceived irresponsible media ownership and journalistic behaviour caused public opinion of the media institution to plummet. These fears were only too similar to those expressed by South Africa’s latest proponents for state regulation of the media, and the Hutchinson Commission saw the duties of the press stemming directly from its rights. According to Craft, the commission explained the press’s “moral right will be conditioned on its acceptance of this accountability. Its legal right will stand unaltered as its moral duty is performed”. A veiled threat that did not discount the possibility of state regulation, says Bollinger, “The commission stopped short of calling for government regulation. But such involvement clearly was not unthinkable. Freedom of the press, it said again and again, ought to be viewed as a ‘conditional right’, one extended by society because of the advantages an autonomous press might provide.”

Craft writes that the “moral duty” of journalists (and the media as a public institution) is to “act independently”, but also to protect the public interest. Then, the notion of responsibility becomes “bound up in journalistic practice… in which exercising rights and fulfilling obligations are concomitant activities.

“If that is true, then ensuring press freedom means going beyond merely preventing government interference to overcoming whatever might get in the way of fulfilling responsibilities, whether it be economic or political constraints on the press or a lack of laws mitigating negative influences on it,” she adds.

The Hutchins Commission sparked the beginning of social responsibility models of journalism, where the public interest must come before all other imperatives. It stands to reason then, that in order for the public to know that media acts in the public interest, is must be (voluntarily) accountable to its public. But for a media to be accountable, it must be also seen to be accountable, or it becomes meaningless.

Over the last two months, I have attempted to access the 2008 Sunday Times report. This report is the result of a lengthy investigation into the Sunday Times newsroom after the paper was forced to issue several high-profile story retractions. The investigation uncovered severe gatekeeping and policy failures at the paper that in turn led to the stories’ eventual retractions.

Avusa editor-in-chief Mondli Makhanya says in his refusal to release the 2008 Sunday Times report that the paper “has always promoted transparent and accountable, corporate behaviour and our behaviour to date reinforces these statements”. But this assertion is rendered meaningless by Avusa’s refusal to release the 2008 Sunday Times report. By refusing to reveal what problems the Sunday Times should be accountable for, they are proving they are not transparent. Additionally, they are unaccountable. How can we hold the media accountable for the unknown? Further, how can the public trust Avusa and the Sunday Times in their secrecy and lack of transparency? What else do we not know we should be holding Avusa accountable for?

In the case of the 2008 Sunday Times report, it is clear Avusa has not met its responsibilities regarding media transparency and accountability, and the company does not intend to do so. How then do we ensure the Sunday Times (and other media) fulfil their responsibilities to their public? Craft struggles with this same problem, and writes: “Attempts to bolster both press freedom and press responsibility create an apparent paradox: Could the press be more free (and, therefore, better able to meet its obligations) if the media system were more restricted?”

In light of these considerations, calls for regulation from the state are not entirely unconceivable. In fact, media commissions globally have called for greater media accountability and ethics for more than 50 years. Renowned French media ethicist Claude-Jean Bertrand said in 2005: “As I studied media ethics off and on for about 20 years… it became evident to me that the survival of mankind is predicated on the generalisation of democracy; that no democracy can exist without press freedom; and that press freedom cannot survive if media are unethical.”

The Sunday Times and Avusa claim to be the “trustees of the public interest”, what of the public trust? If the limited research and writing in this field is any indication, it appears there is little consideration for the media’s credibility amongst its readers, viewers and listeners. This is a dangerous oversight to make not only for South African democracy, but also for media workers themselves. It is not a coincidence that cases of violence towards and harassment of journalists are higher in countries where the public mistrusts the media and press freedom is limited. The Association of European Journalists reported in 2008 on Armenia’s increasing incidents of violence against media workers and the decreasing public trust. In South Africa, cases of violence against media workers spiked earlier this year, when eTV journalist Jody Jacobs and cameraman Linge Ndabambi were attacked by the self-same public the media is meant to serve. The pair was attacked by service delivery protesters at Wesselton, outside Ermelo, in February this year and had to be rushed to a place of safety.

When Avusa referred to its commercial interests as reason to withhold the 2008 Sunday Times report, it also argued the report was not in the public interest. What Avusa cannot dispute, however, is that releasing the report is in the public trust, and by failing to release the report in 2008, subsequently burying it, and then refusing to release it now (unless ordered to do so in a court of law) deeply undermines the public trust. What makes the Sunday Times think its commercial interests are more imperative than the public trust?

There are several cases of newspapers (and the media-owning companies) that clearly do not share Avusa’s position. This includes titles such as The Washington Post, which in the 1980s had to return the 1981 Pulitzer Prize won by reporter Janet Cooke after Cooke’s story about an eight-year-old heroin addict was revealed to be a fiction.

More recent was the Jayson Blair scandal that played out at The New York Times in 2003. Then the gatekeeping and managerial failures at the newspaper enabled up-and-coming star reporter Jayson Blair not only to plagiarise many reports, but also to fabricate them, without being caught over a lengthy period of time. And when Blair was finally caught, it wasn’t by his fellow staffers at NYT, despite their apparent suspicions. It was only after he plagiarised the work of then San Antonio Express-News reporter Macarena Hernandez that the editorial staff at NYT took action against Blair, despite several inaccuracy complaints against him and a history of sloppy reporting.  When the extensive fraud was revealed, Blair resigned and a full report was published in the paper some time later. Five weeks after Blair’s resignation, two leading and senior members of NYT’s staff also resigned: Howell Raines, the paper’s executive editor, and Gerald Boyd, managing editor.

And in what became known as the “Blair Watch Project”, media workers and academics made a sport out of searching for inaccuracies and fabrications in Blair’s 700+ stories he had written over five years.

In the months after the Jayson Blair scandal, The New York Times undertook not one, but several investigations of its newsroom processes and policies. After these investigations were completed, the paper released a full report, the “Siegal Committee report” of its findings and recommendations. In this report, the committee stated: “After the damage inflicted by the Blair scandal and the events that followed, we recommend a dramatic demonstration of our openness to public accountability,” and later added that “we must affirm the values of transparency, fairness, and accountability throughout our newsroom”.

In 2005, the Siegal Committee report was followed by a second report of a similar nature, but this time “in response to a broader assault on the credibility of the serious news media,” executive editor Bill Keller said.  What is most striking about the 2005 Siegal Committee report is the serious weight given to the concepts of credibility, accountability and the public trust. A section of the report investigates “A Dialogue with our Publics”, while another chapter looks at “Reaching out to Readers”.

Yet over the last decade media researchers and academics globally still report worrying research that claims the public’s trust in the media is dwindling.

In 2000 the Human Sciences Researches Council reported public trust in the South African media had fallen from 66% in November 1999 to 40% in September 2000, following the survey and interview of more than 2,600 South Africans across the country. At the time, Meshack Khosa, then acting executive director of democracy and governance at the HSRC, said the decline was an indication “the public does not necessarily take the media's message as gospel”. He added that the “public is sending a wakeup call to key institutions to 'shape up' or else”.

Ten years later, in August 2010, the UK-based opinion research company YouGov reported a 24% fall in trust for leading broadsheets – including the Times, Telegraph and Guardian – since 2003, while BBC journalists suffered a reported 21% drop in public trust. The decline was discovered after various sample groups of over 1,800 British citizens were surveyed.

Back home, the general lack of public attendance at the South African Press Council public hearings in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town is a worrying indication of the public disinterest for the future of self-regulation in the country.

In 1987 James Carey wrote “the god-term of journalism – the be-all and end-all, the term without which the entire enterprise fails to make sense – is the public. Insofar as journalism is grounded, it is grounded in the public.” He was referring to public journalism, but his point stands. If the media do not regard the public’s trust as relevant to our operations, then what is the public interest if not just a cynical farce for the commercial imperatives of media businesses? DM

  • Michelle Solomon
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Michelle Solomon is doing her Masters in journalism and media studies at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, where she also works as a freelance researcher and journalist. When she's not out sniffing for stories, she takes a particular interest in research about media ethics and self-regulation.


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