Responsible reporting lacking among some media houses

Prem Misir, Ph.D.
Guyana Chronicle
November 5, 2000

RESPONSIBLE reporting requires objectivity, accuracy, and fundamental fairness! The media landscape in Guyana needs to embellish such journalistic nutrients.

People entering the media field in Guyana must understand the social context of the society on which they will report. Interpretations grounded in an understanding of social contexts tend to be objective, reliable, valid, and fundamentally fair.

One of the dominant characteristics of the Guyana social context is the perception of racism and racial discrimination. Therefore, media operatives will have to examine the society's multiethnic character historically and contemporaneously, especially with regard to the media as a socialising influence, media errors, undistorted communication, and fundamental freedoms.

The socialisation agent The media, acting as an agent of socialisation, help to form a person's identity. This process is achieved through a person's contact with the 'media culture' that presents a large frame of reference.

A person's identity is an emerging consciousness. Consciousness refers to internal cognitive and emotional awareness inherent in each individual that mainly arises from learning experiences (Real, 1996:38).

In the media, the person creating the media message conceives of it in the messenger's own consciousness. This media message, then, is transferred via a medium to become an experience in the consciousness of the receiver. The person, receiving the message, conceivably, could develop a distorted consciousness and social identity, when media reports are consistently biased. In this case, the individual views the world with inaccurate lens.

As a socialisation agent, the media have to mirror the society. Are the media really objectively and accurately reflective of Guyanese society in the area of race and ethnic relations? Do they interpret race conflicts in the context of class stratification?

The answer is no. Most electronic and some print media present biased and extreme media messages consistent with their particular political party affiliation or sympathy, without regard to objectivity and fundamental fairness. Lack of objectivity and fundamental fairness are some ingredients for media distortions. Consider that personality development and behaviour, in many cases, being shaped by such media distortions!

Media distortions The media sometimes commit Type I and/or Type II Errors (Medler and Medler, 1996:175-177). Type I Error is a wrong decision made to reject a statement of no relationship between two or more factors. In effect, a conclusion is made that a relationship between the factors exists, when in fact it does not.

Type II Error is a wrong decision made to accept a statement of no relationship between variables, concluding that no relationship between the factors exists, when in fact it does.

In Guyana, media houses consistently commit a Type I error. Reports produced by inadequate investigations laced with unverified sources, trigger the Type I error. Media distortions emanating from this amateur journalistic framework, abound in Guyana. The weight of evidence in many media reports is sorely lacking.

Striving for undistorted communication Media should contribute to nation-building by helping to produce a society with undistorted communication. The purpose of this kind of media presentation is communicative understanding (Ritzer, 1996:155). Communicative understanding is really an attempt to reach a common understanding of any phenomenon. The media can achieve this communicative understanding through a process of consensus. Consensus, according to Habermas, itself is reached through discourse, but only when media houses recognise four types of validity claims. These are:

( The media presentation is understandable and balanced.

( The media reports are true, that is, media houses are presenting reliable knowledge.

(The media house itself is being truthful in presenting the reports.

(The media houses have the right to make these statements.

If any one of the aforementioned claims is unmet, consensus dissipates. Since the December 1997 national elections, we have witnessed various forces that prevented consensus on several issues from becoming a reality, resulting in a high volume of distorted media communication. Media distortions arise from misunderstandings of freedom of speech and freedom of the press; these fundamental freedoms have to be exercised within the parameters of the validity claims outlined above.

Freedom of speech & freedom of the press The concepts of freedom of speech and freedom of the press are not absolute, for they have to be presented within the law and the normative rules of society. Article VIII of the Charter of Civil Society for the Caribbean Community stipulates that there should be freedom of expression and access to information. But the Charter went on to say that exercise of this right requires special duties and responsibilities, and may be effected subject to reasonable restraints for the public good, as may be rationalised in law in a democratic state. Prime Minister Basdeo Panday remarked: "I do not believe that freedom of the press includes the untrammeled right to publish lies, half-truths and innuendoes about anyone" (Speech in Parliament, 1998). Even the most liberal Western democracy requires restrictions on these two fundamental rights in the public interest.

Dr Michael P. Mortell, President, The National University of Ireland, Cork, in 1997, said that freedom of the press is not an absolute. He further argued that the French Declaration of Rights, and several international rights instruments, such as, the Irish Constitution, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1950) or the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), all include freedom of speech, but do not bestow a privileged status on the Press.

The U.S., as one of these liberal Western democracies, has strong statutory measures to deal with 'hate' speech and other racist 'bias' statements, and acts. Currently, 40 States in the U.S., excluding Wyoming, have a hate crimes law. These measures do encroach on freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

Multiculturalism The history of the Caribbean has shown the biased role media houses have played in reporting and analysing race conflicts vis--vis invariably and covertly supporting ruling political parties, especially those parties that thrive on inflaming racist sensitivities. Sometimes the media do it under the guise of promoting free speech.

In addition, media houses usually present the notion of racism and discrimination unlinked to class. Using this perspective will not bring real solutions to race and class conflicts. In so far as any dominant ethnic party attempts to assimilate the other ethnics to its value system, the race politics will endure. The media, by bolstering this evil brand of politics, can only add credibility to this sinister development.

Those harnessed with political power in the Caribbean must ensure the sustenance of other people's cultures, and therefore focus policy agenda on the principle of multiculturalism. Effecting such policies would not only develop a culture of trust, but would obliterate the need for race politics.

In this scenario, the media would have no choice but to use the idea of free speech in the name of multiculturalism. Government's policy frameworks grounded in real multiculturalism will carry positive seeds for the creation of a nation. Individual Caribbean societies will not become real nations as long as its politicians continue to dabble in race politics. Governments with assistance from media houses will have to provide leadership in the promotion of multiculturalism.

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