Saturday 19 July 2008

Media Power and Responsibility

This originally appeared in my Reuters AlertNet blog on 19 July 2008.


Gideon Rachman had a great piece in the FT on Monday. In "American journalism, still a model", he contrasts US and UK media, finding that although American newspaper journalism seems "self-reverential, long-winded, over-edited and stuffy", it does have an advantage over its British counterpart in that the Americans "take the idea of journalism as a civic duty much more seriously".

With a foot on each side of the pond, I don't really want to get into the cross-Atlantic contrast exactly. The cited Reuters Foundation report on "The Power of the Commentariat", showing that UK commentators don't regard themselves as powerful is more interesting, as it touches on something that goes beyond commentators to editors and others who decide what becomes a story and what doesn't.

Many media gatekeepers I talk to also seem to ignore the reality of the power they hold, or, if they accept they do indeed have some, will then not make the connection between power and responsibility.

By responsibility, I don't mean the duty to get a story factually correct. That's important but relatively minor. I'm talking about how their position gives them a moral obligation to do something good for people. (If you really need a definition for "do something good for people", how about "reduce human suffering"?) Looking at story selection in particular -- that is, what they choose to cover -- how many media gatekeepers can honestly say they are prioritising their work on this basis?

I know there will be some readers accusing me of leaning too heavily on my American foot here, saying I sound sanctimonious. Others will try to draw a line between journalism and activism. Still others will just say I'm just unrealistic.

To the first I would say, with my British foot firmly planted, yes, there is hardly anything worse in journalism than someone taking themselves too seriously, but at the same time, it's a foolish waste of your life to take a position of power and not actually use it for something decent and worthwhile.

To the second group, I am firmly in the camp that believes there is no objective journalism. What you choose to cover, the most fundamental decision, is subjective and can be considered activism -- and will be by those who wish you never brought the issue to light.

And to the third group, to those who say this is all unrealistic... Well, it's true most mainstream media editors are unwilling to break away from the pack mentality, and they primarily cover stories based on what they see other media covering. But most also recognise the slavish circle they are in and are fairly disgusted by it.

Most disturbing, however, is the argument I too often hear that "readers aren't interested" in a subject, which for me in my job is usually some far-off country where people are facing mass atrocity crimes. I would, and do, say to the editors that it's their responsibility to get the public interested.

But we don't make the news, the gatekeepers retort. No, not entirely, of course. But to a large extent, they do. Denial is not a good defence.

With eyes open, it should be possible for media gatekeepers to recognise their power, accept the responsibility that goes with it, and still avoid self-righteousness.

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