I recall as a young journalist an intense debate in the newsroom around a story that I had carefully researched about the Trinidad & Tobago then-Chief Justice Clinton Bernard. The issue was not the veracity of the story. The discussion rather, was on whether or not we had satisfied all the tenets of professional journalism before going to print.
Of the many, many editorial meetings in which I participated while I was a journalist, this one stands out in my memory not because of the details of the story itself, but because the weight of our responsibility as journalists and editors was so significant. To write an exposé that could erode the public’s confidence in an institution as critical to the democratic state as the judiciary, was not a decision to be undertaken haphazardly; confident as we were in the story it could not be released without considering all the consequences.
It occurs to me, that if I were to find myself in precisely the same circumstances now with the current set of actors, that responsibility would feel considerably more weighty. Although the expectations for professionalism seem less onerous, which is never a good thing.
Stories about the failed exploits of public figures always make for good news. In fact, it is understood that people holding public office bear a higher burden of accountability to the public for their actions and the news media play a key role in keeping them accountable.
The public has a right to know and that right is protected by all the legislation that supports freedom of expression as set out in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Journalists act in defense of the public’s right to know by ferreting out information and disseminating that information after checking, cross checking and rechecking the truthfulness of it so that the public can make informed choices about all kinds of things that affect their lives.
Journalists are not columnists. They are not called on to opine. Columnists are people who bring their experience and particular perspective to what’s happening around us to deepen our thinking on current issues.
Journalists don’t have it so easy. Journalists have to follow rules of ethics and professionalism. The Society for Professional Journalists, perhaps best encapsulates what is required: “Public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.”
Journalists naturally rely on people willing to speak up on matters of interest that are not easily accessible. Journalists, it is sometimes said, are only as good as their source. Most such informants would probably prefer to share what they know and then quietly slip back into the shadows, but the public has a right to judge the reliability and motivation of the source of the information being provided. So there are principles that govern how journalists should deal with sources. Although, since the phenomenon of Trump burst on the scene, we seem to have entered a new era of liberally referring to anonymous sources. This undermines the central purpose of journalism, public enlightenment. In fact, using good journalistic standards, sources should be identified in every news story, and anonymity reserved for those instances when the source faces real danger of some kind of harm. If that’s the case, the reason for anonymity should be explained; that’s a story in itself and the public has a right to know.
So, I wonder, does it serve the public well to be told the opinions of a group of unidentified public figures about a critically important institution at a time when all the pillars of this democracy appear to be cracking? If there is a news story in there, it should be found and exposed through the constructive pursuit of the truth.
Elizabeth Solomon is a self-described “change agent.” An award-winning journalist from Trinidad & Tobago, she was recruited to the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, setting her off on a trek that took her to some of the worst and most protracted conflicts in the world, a journey that honed her skills as a conflict prevention and peacebuilding expert. Elizabeth’s work in post conflict countries has focused on supporting local efforts to build resilient democratic national institutions in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Somalia. Her work on human rights and development has been in Guyana, Brazil and India. She is a member of Trinidad & Tobago’s Mediation Board and the Executive Director of the Caribbean Centre for Human Rights. She is also a member of the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers.
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