Above: An offset pressroom. Photo by Borabajk/DepositPhotos
By Nicole Duke-Westfield
The late Caribbean journalist, George Radcliffe John, in his book Freedom and Responsibility: The Dean Speaks, recounts the 1995 statement by Appeal Court Justice Sat Sharma when he accused the media of “pandering to sensationalism to ensure their circulation swells”. Justice Sharma was at the time hearing the appeal of convicted drug lord Dole Chadee.
John’s reference was contained in his column titled Media on Trial Again, in which he argued that while the media has an important role to place in the society, that role is not to publish only those stories that make the society look good.
The T&T Guardian front page headline of April 17, 2018, Smear Factor, plus pictures of 2018 Commonwealth Gold medallist Michelle Lee Ahye and another woman, brought to mind the newsroom discussions I had with John and others, two decades ago on the question of what is newsworthy.
“Does it pass the breakfast test? Does it serve the public interest? Who needs to know and what is the story?”, would be the questions from “Mr John” as we, the newsroom neophytes, called him then.
We’d launch into heated debate about blood and gore, bacchanal and confusion, and the fact that while we didn’t like these things, it’s what the public wanted. They had a right to know. Didn’t they?
Twenty-three years later, we are long past the newsroom of my early journalism days. I have since left the profession and it has since evolved to the point where digital media is becoming the flagship channel and fewer people actually flip news pages anymore to find out what’s going on.
What’s more, crime and criminality occupy pride of place in our newspapers to the point where most people probably know the national murder count better than their bank account number.
Yet, one debate that doesn’t seem to have evolved much further in the 23 years relates to sensationalism and good taste. Hence we are presented in 2018 with Smear Factor. Photos supposedly leaked online of the prominent athlete and her partner, legitimising questions, possibly asked privately in other places, about the athlete’s sexual orientation.
The story comes a week after she won Gold at Commonwealth Games and Justice Devindra Rampersad determined that Sections 13 and 16 of the Sexual Offences Act, commonly referred to as the Buggery Law, were unconstitutional. So question answered then? There’s your public interest!
But is that enough?
Where’s the public interest being served by knowing Ahye’s sexual orientation? How has this impacted the society? Are you paying more at the pump or in the grocery as a result of knowing what we think we know about her?
Journalists Laura Dowrich-Phillips and Franka Philip shared their thoughts with me about this issue. They, like me, once worked at the T&T Guardian, with Philip being the most recent employee. She resigned as Features Editor last year.
“The media has a responsibility to carefully consider their role,” said Dowrich-Phillips, who is the Regional Lifestyle Editor at Loop TT. “Given all this is happening in our society today, we have to report things in the public interest. But, we also have a platform to educate and lift the level of discourse in the country.”
Responsibility in the media, now there’s a thought!
Turning the point to social media, Philip, who recently launched the society and culture website, Trini Good Media believes the journalist has an even more critical responsibility in the current environment.
“A story that breaks on social media might be in the interest of the people in a certain demographic, but is it in the wider public interest,” she questioned.
Interestingly, the same social media that “leaked” the photos has erupted in disgust against the newspaper.
Both journalists agree that the responsibility lies in the hands of the newsroom’s management to carefully consider its role and responsibility even as it grapples with the issues of providing quality content that will sell newspapers.
The fact is the rules do not change whether it is traditional or social, whether your story is posted from a smart phone or hammered out from a typewriter. What’s a typewriter some of you ask? Well, that’s for another discussion.
It is all a daily balancing act in the newsroom of today to be sure, with the operative word here being balance.
Nicole Duke-Westfield is the principal consultant at Westfield Communications.
She started her career in print journalism where she rose to become the editor of the Guardian newspapers.
She later switched careers and went on to become a senior corporate communications manager at a leading financial multinational.