Don't rock the boat
February 17, 2004
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What is the media to do? The problem can arise most acutely at a time of war. Suppose a country goes to war, as Britain did against Iraq, but some sections of the society and the media, are opposed to it. Is it the case that once the die is cast and troops are out there risking their lives there is no more room for doubt and it is one's patriotic duty to get on board and support 'our boys' uncritically.
These are not easy issues. All newspapers have a sense of duty to their country. They also have a duty to their readers and to the public good. Once the shooting starts does the patriotic duty become paramount? Is one free to report a war critically, is being 'embedded' with troops acceptable and on what terms? Clearly one should not under any circumstances publish security information that would prejudice the state though it is often far from clear where that line should be drawn. But should reporters have to rely exclusively on the military for what is effectively managed news of a war, or can they do their own thing? In practice this may not be easy to achieve as getting close enough to the action to report without military cooperation may not be a practical proposition.
In Vietnam, reporters had begun to go out on their own without military escort to find out what was happening. As Professor H Eugene Goodwin noted in his book Groping for ethics in journalism one reporter, "Harrison Salisbury of the New York Times, even went to Hanoi, the enemy's capital, to file reports that cast doubts on Pentagon claims that we were not bombing civilian targets in North Vietnam, only military targets. Salisbury's stories in 1966 and the increasingly critical coverage by all reporters and photographers covering Vietnam undoubtedly contributed to the snowballing public disenchantment with that war, which eventually forced the government to disengage us from the conflict without victory." In recent wars, the Pentagon has sought to make independent coverage of the military action more difficult.
Even in war, therefore, journalists cannot simply 'join the team' and become uncritical mouthpieces of the government. In less critical matters like tourism and investment though the responsibility for accurate and professional reporting is always paramount one cannot simply hide the news to further a national objective. What is at issue is the question of balance. For example if lurid crime stories are given front page headline treatment every day it could readily be argued that important news is being sidelined in the interest of sensational reporting.
Governments are not the only source of pressure to hold news. It is also not infrequently the case that bankers, investors, businessmen or other major financial players do not want certain information to be published until a deal is closed. Should one hold a story while talks are under way, assuming of course that one has received the information legitimately and for publication? In other words, should one take on board the concerns of one or more of the players that publication of an offer before a deal is concluded could affect their position? Clearly a newspaper would not normally have any desire to spoil a business deal, unless there is something unacceptable or damaging about it. But should it abstain from printing something it knows and how is it to be sure that by doing so it does not lead to issues not being ventilated that should be and therefore to injustice being done.
In other words, the business of 'managing' the news in the national interest or in the interest of businessmen or financiers is a very slippery slope and once embarked on it can quickly lead to compromises that are incompatible with good journalism. The first duty of a newspaper is to publish the news without fear or favour and as fairly and professionally as it can. If it starts worrying about who this will affect or what it might lead to it becomes a player in the game rather than a mere recorder or reporter. That is not to say that there are never good grounds for holding a story. Clearly there can be. But a newspaper's priority is sometimes to rock the boat. If it starts giving too much weight to other considerations it can be in danger of losing its journalistic soul. There are sometimes good reasons for not publishing but better ones for publishing. In some cases there is no simple answer, a newspaper has to do what it thinks best and let the chips fall where they may.
Professor Goodwin reflects on the media's role. "Some scholars scoff at the notion that the press is a watchdog of government and other orders in American life. They see the press as part of the system, not an independent critic of it. Its dependence on advertising for financial survival, it is argued, makes the press an extension of the industrial order. Likewise, many Americans outside the academy often seem unappreciative of journalism's role in a democratic society, particularly when the press goes after one of their political favorites. But some great things have been accomplished in American journalism in the name of that watchdog. Despite its financial moorings, journalism has not only uncovered both large and small abuses of governmental power, it has been about the only check we have had in modern times on the increasingly efficient secrecy of government at all levels. It is hoped that lack of applause will not stop journalists from aggressively pursuing what they see as their watchdog function."
The media can never be a cheerleader. It must be a watchdog, but an Alsatian rather than a pit bull.