A state of media confusion


Above: Unesco World Press Freedom Day 2018 graphic. Courtesy Unesco.

By Wesley Gibbings

A version of this commentary previously appeared in the T&T Guardian.

So today, May 3, we observe World Press Freedom Day. Wait and see. It will mainly be journalists who will be believing this has anything to do with them. It always seems that so many people along the communication spectrum do not understand that the interests of journalists and journalism run so wide and deep in any society.

Much of this has to do with the fact that people don’t often realise that good media practice is a social asset. Its value is way in excess of the ability of the industry to thrive on the production of meaningful content.

It was Washington Post journalist Paul Farhi who once argued, in an obvious state of pique, that a generic, amorphous entity called “the media” did not exist and that the label was in fact an all-purpose smear used by people not moved by any obligation to make intelligent distinctions about what they read, see or hear in the public space.

Today, in T&T, we suspect this to be a fact of our own existence. Journalists have become used to the observations of both the well-meaning and those inspired by ill-will that “the media” are capable of stimulating utmost evil, despair and destruction.

Now, don’t get me wrong; all institutions such as these are capable of causing harm. In fact, an overarching commitment of the journalist’s creed implies a requirement to cause no harm.

But I have even heard and seen broadcasters and newspaper columnists and others employing mass communication platforms complain about the impact of “the media” on behaviour, on official policy, on the price of bread. “The media”, of course, comprising everybody else except them.

There continues to be a kind of intellectual sloppiness which renders people incapable of disaggregating media content and recognising the media’s implicit complexity as the sum of many diverse, inclusionary and constituent parts.

It is thus the role of those now committed to promotion of media and information literacy – currently conceptualised as a discrete programme under the banner of UNESCO – to begin the hard work of explaining to people that while a media industry exists, and journalism remains a function of such an industry in all its current manifestations, there is actually no such thing as “the media” in the sense employed by many.

Confusion over the essential qualities of media also earns special credits amid what is now being widely described as “fake news” – aka propaganda or, more accurately, deliberate untruths implanted on mass communication platforms seeking traction by the unsuspecting. The fact is, the term is also an oxymoronic expression also meant to be a slur on journalism with which you disagree.

It’s a phenomenon connected to the situation in which opposition politicians somehow beome convinced that press freedom is a requirement of modern society while their colleagues in government belatedly discover a false balance between freedom and responsibility.

It is however true that to be responsible, you must first be free. How, for example, can better journalism thrive in the absence of open access to officially-held information? How can such information flow if protections for those with information to share in the public interest do not exist?

The freedom enlightened media legislation and regulation bring can contribute more than anything else to responsible behaviour by journalists and other media players.

Yesterday, the Media Institute of the Caribbean (MIC) convened a regional training initiative in Jamaica for media professionals with an interest in investigative journalism and those who are attempting to gain a foothold in this special branch of the profession.

This is a singularly important exercise in the context of a communication environment that does not routinely conduce to either openness with the provision of information or to enthusiastic candour with the resulting revelations.

This year’s global theme for WPFD is “Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice and The Rule of Law.” Within this is an open acknowledgement of the need for more, not less, journalism and a better understanding of what constitutes “the media” and all they purport to bring.

Wesley Gibbings

Wesley Gibbings is a former president of the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers. He is a veteran journalist who is committed to the promotion of press freedom and freedom of expression throughout the Caribbean. You can follow him on Twitter at @wgibbings

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One comment on “A state of media confusion

  1. Local media could suffer more journalism, local journalism could suffer more media.

    This, combined with well-researched big data, is where propaganda fake news gets its wheels – and network power, the real elephant in that room, doesn’t require anything called journalism to propagate. It requires media.

    This comes because of unrealistic expectations of consumers of media, who often confuse media and journalism. I’m not journalist, but I know journalism when I see it… and really, when I look at local media, how much journalism do I see bleeding through those mediums? How much dare show up before it consternates those that count the beans, those that tread where the abacus used to rule, where the scales are measured in advertising income and political goodwill?

    Kicking the political football off the field is also necessary. I don’t know how to advise the journalists that I know and respect… but I do cheer them on when I see them push on into their own endeavours, or cleaning up ancient messes. I like my media woven with facts.

    Everyone wants KFC, not everyone appreciates true culinary skill. This is the problem with journalism and the media and the business models.

    Everyone wants comfort, no one wants pain. Rarely does journalism give comfort – though I argue it is a comfort to know it is happening, a calculus beyond most. And really, who but a masochist enjoys the painful truth of the reality we find ourselves in when the facts are there? So the media puts the filler in that buffers the pain and in doing so, can mislead the public who is already mislead in so many ways.

    Journalism. Media. Indeed, these are two separate things combined in the minds of consumers, but the only way for people to differentiate is for them to see journalism. Investigative journalism, as mentioned, can be an expensive proposition? How is that paid for?

    And we go back to the counters of beans, the slaves to their spreadsheets, trying to find a bottom line that is devoid of pain… and devoid of journalism.