Are journalists failing today’s public?

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Journalists perform a vital function in keeping the public informed about everything that happens around them, affecting the day-to-day life of the people. They are indispensable to the good health of a democratic society. The importance of this function is illustrated by the press being considered the fourth estate, augmenting the executive, legislature and the judiciary, the three pillars on which a viable democracy could stand. Attempts are being made at every opportunity by interested parties to distort the truth and mislead the people, so that the proponents can hoodwink them and achieve their own ends. Ours is a country with a long legacy of self-seeking politicians, in connivance with their accomplices on mass media, misleading the people with falsehoods. Hence the necessity of the masses to be well informed of true facts is even more important.

Despite the ready availability of the internet, the electronic media and the printed press are the main sources for people to receive information. This is specially so at a time when mass gatherings, indoor and outdoor meetings and the like are severely curtailed due to the pandemic. This situation has provided an ideal cover for wrongdoers to carry on with their sinister programmes keeping the populace in the dark. This has almost become an integral part of the “new normal”. As the rulers and the politicians in general are the decision-makers, often ignoring or not seeking the advice of the learned in the respective field, to know their utterances and answers to any questions raised is important. When the main channels of information fail, social media takes over, giving widely varied perspectives, with questionable authenticity, of a multitude of individuals, often anonymous, confusing the people even further. It is still fresh in our memory how irresponsible news reports and social media posts during times of ethnic conflict and racial disputes lead to violence in the not too distant past.

The state-controlled news media invariably give pro-government views almost amounting to partisan propaganda. They hardly ever give any news or opinions that are against the views or actions of the government. Thus they shield the authorities from any evidence of public discontent, thereby not allowing any course correction that may be required. As far as the so-called independent media are concerned, it is well known and generally accepted that the editorial views expressed therein show the leaning, political or otherwise, of the proprietors of the organizations. When such ownership is mostly in the hands of pro-government businessmen, the democratic Opposition is at a huge disadvantage, having at its disposal only a very limited means of conveying their message to the people. To make matters worse, the handful of news channels and social media, giving information unfavourable to the government, run the risk of being clamped down. Even in progressive democracies of the developed world, news groups historically carry partisan labels, political, business or otherwise. However, most of the time, such affiliations do not colour their commentaries on national issues.

In this adverse environment, it is the primary duty of the journalists to ensure that the truth is extracted from decision-makers. We find the reporters questioning the leaders and other officials at various meetings or at scheduled discussions and Q & A sessions. There are only a very few brave newsmen/newswomen who would ask probing questions, often embarrassing the person concerned, but eventually extracting the truth. Every time a politician comes out from a meeting, many microphones bearing the labels of leading news organizations are used, through half open shutters of luxury vehicles, to record their answers to various queries made. The problem with most reporters is that it is always a one way process. Even when obvious untruths are uttered, there is no cross questioning of any sort that could expose the untruth and unearth the truth. Such unverified facts thus gathered, receive immediate headlines in the newspapers and news bulletins despite all the evidence already available to the contrary. Search for the truth has given way to sensational journalism, making the news media the mouth-pieces of the errant politicians and their subservient officials. The politicians, used to having their own way over the years without being challenged, often get irritated and give abusive answers to probing questions. There are several instances where such reporters asking embarrassing questions have been barred from getting anywhere near them.

The present controversy about chemical fertilis ers and pesticides is a classic example where journalists have failed the people. There is a widely held misconception among the public that these chemicals are harmful to human health. However, there is no proven scientific evidence even to arouse suspicion that this is so. Despite much surveys and research, to date there has been no compelling evidence to show that these chemical substances have a role in causing chronic kidney disease, rampant in some provinces of the island. Yet, we find that in many discussions with journalists and others, politicians and even some medical specialists, keep stressing confidently about the existence of such a harmful relationship. A medical specialist has been callous enough to pronounce that many generations have been poisoned with chemicals used in agriculture. If this is true, obviously this has to be a worldwide phenomenon well established by now, although there is no such evidence anywhere. No journalist has been brave enough to question and challenge them about the evidence for those misleading statements. Such failure in the long term leads to authorities making wrong decisions, as repeated utterances and reporting of unchallenged falsehoods by so called experts will eventually become accepted as the truth (Goebbels theory). In contrast, the role played by the reporters and journalists during the current pandemic in keeping the people well informed is commendable.

It is disappointing to note that the news media concentrate only on a few issues at a given time. At present new Cabinet appointments and farmers’ problems are receiving attention. The ongoing calamities with long-term repercussions like destruction of nature with the cutting down of trees on a large scale, unregulated sand mining of river beds, and even the extensive damage done to the seafront and marine life destroying the livelihood of fishermen by the recent maritime disaster, are almost completely forgotten by the news media. The human-elephant conflict causing immense misery needing continued attention is off the table now. It is the duty of journalists and reporters to ensure that these issues and discussions are kept alive, until meaningful remedial action is taken by those responsible.

Most reporters appear to be amateurs with no formal training in the field. It is reasonable to expect the few who may have followed a course in journalism offered in many institutions, to do better in their profession. It is imperative that they have a basic knowledge or understanding of the subject under discussion. It would be a valuable learning exercise to follow the reporters and journalists in advanced democracies, asking probing questions even from seemingly very powerful leaders and others, until the unambiguous truth is elicited. As a result, those who are questioned are careful enough to speak only the facts that could be substantiated.

Our journalists, if not investigative, should at least be inquisitive. Instead they appear to be totally subdued in the presence of overpowering personalities trying their best to avoid embarrassing situations. It is heartening to see a handful of journalists on television programmes, brave enough to ask probing questions from powerful ministers and officials trying their best to avoid giving straight forward answers. One only hopes that their own bosses at TV channels will not silence them, as almost 90% of news organisations are owned either by the government or by businessmen who have benefited tremendously by their unwavering loyalty to politicians in power.

By being passive broadcasters of unverified falsehoods uttered by equally ignorant people, the newsmen are insulting the intelligence of the people. They appear to be working to their own agendas rather than promoting the wellbeing of the nation. They have often failed the populace eagerly waiting to learn the truth, especially in these turbulent times with many controversies disturbing the peace-loving citizens of the land.

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Disclaimer: Are journalists failing today’s public? - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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