Journalism and responsibility
August 17, 2004
THERE is this joke which goes: a rescue team in search of a crashed airplane comes upon the lone survivor, surrounded by the ravaged remains of his fellow passengers, gnawing on a human thigh.
When the man sees the shocked looked on the faces of his rescuers, he starts off on an impassioned tirade. "You can't judge me...you don't know what it's been like, lost and alone here...What would you have done in my place?" The leader of the team looks at him in disgust and says, "Fair enough, man. But your plane only went down this morning!"
The bickering and fighting between media houses have escalated in recent times, due perhaps to the fact that our small population and finite resources dictate that there is increasingly little of the advertising - and in the case of newspapers, circulation - pie to go around. Of course the fact that many of us are politically aligned to one side or another, doesn't help either.
Television newscasts routinely refer to perceived errors in each other's stories; the two private dailies are making henpecking each other into a fine art; every day we in the media try to outdo or undermine each other. It is perhaps human nature to resort to la bete humaine - its inner beast - when faced with dire challenges; call it our survival instinct if you will, and maybe it sometimes serves us in good stead.
But there are more and more instances, like in the joke above, when we in the media jump the gun and engage in a feeding frenzy, like if news going out of style.
At a preliminary screening for its National Film Festival, the Ethnic Relations Commission invited the media to the showing of two films, last Friday. One of the films, Stranger With a Camera by American documentary filmmaker, Elizabeth Barret, deals with the awesome power that the media have when it comes to presenting the very lives of people.
The film is an exploration of a 1967 incident in the Appalachian Mountains, Kentucky, USA, where an enraged landowner, Hobart Ison, shot and killed a Canadian documentary filmmaker, Hugh O'Connor, for filming poor tenants on his land. Mr. Ison's attorney made the case that Ison, though not legally insane, was so frustrated by the then recent media attention that his community - or more properly, the poverty in his community - was getting that he simply flipped and shot O'Connor.
Barret's contention in the film was that the American press at the time was mining the poverty of the Appalachians just as brutally and as irresponsibly as the rich landowners were mining the coal in the mountains. This frenzied representation of a 'truth' while ignoring other elements of the big picture was what sent Ison off the edge.
In one review, the American Library Association publication, 'Booklist', called the film ďA quietly incisive and sublime examination of media power."
Perhaps that is what we need here in Guyana. What we in the media have to realise is that information is power, and thus we are in a very real sense the nation's power-brokers. We get to dictate who knows what, how much of it, and when.
We have a very real responsibility to every Guyanese citizen to give as much accurate information as possible, responsibly; even through our varied biases. There is no harm in spirited competition, except when we leave the truth behind while scrambling for the scoop. Or covering it up when it is detrimental to our interests.
It is time for a press association that represents all the media entities in the country to actively strive for some sort of benchmark of media responsibility, hard as this may seem.
The next general election - and it is undoubtedly at election time that the lunacy increases a thousand fold - is two years away.
Perhaps we have time before, as was the case examined in Stranger with a Camera, things get fatal.