September 11, 2003
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Suppose a spokesman of an opposition party says at a press conference that the distribution of house lots by the Ministry of Housing has been unfair, should one report that? There can be no doubt that it was said, that is clearly so, but suppose that on checking at the Ministry of Housing and getting the statistics one discovers that the statement is inaccurate and that in fact, as the figures show, there has been no ethnic or other bias in the allocation of house lots. By not taking the trouble to check the first statement one would have put into the public arena an inaccurate statement that could cause considerable damage.
Suppose the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Education said that CXC exam results this year were satisfactory, should one report that or should one take the trouble to check the actual results, compare them with previous years, compare them with results in Trinidad, Barbados and Jamaica, and examine exactly what a Grade l, grade 2, Grade 3 or Grade 4 pass signifies so that the reader will get a much better idea of the significance of the exam results and the level of achievement they represent.
The point being made is that reporters have to do their homework in order to discharge their professional responsibilities. If they merely report uncritically anything that is said they do a grave disservice to the reader or the listener. Good reporting is hard work. It involves, at a minimum , fact checking. It involves access to information, speaking to all the interests involved to get their side of the story, sifting the wheat from the chaff as far as that is possible. It may involve some level of research and further enquiry. Reporting can be as good or as bad as the reporter is capable of.
A reporter also has to learn from experience. Not everything that is said by anyone is news. They have to develop a critical sense of what is relevant and important and what is not. A press release or what someone said should usually only be the beginning of a story, not the end of it. Those who put out press releases, whether it is the government information services, a political party or a public relations officer of a company do their best to stress their angle of the story and to withhold anything that might not fit in with that. A good reporter on the basis of his or her experience or knowledge of that field should probe to get beyond that opening statement and to elicit other facts. Many stories are capable of considerable development if there is the necessary insight into the issues and the work is done.
Responsible reporting is far more difficult than it may appear at first glance. In some fields, specialised knowledge is required. Fair, professional and moderate reporting can help to set the temper for a civilisation and help to expose public figures to the balanced judgment of their peers.